Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Book Review Club: Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

(This is the June 2011 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list of participants, click on the icon at the end of this review.)

Buck Rogers had one. Flash Gordon had one. Batman has had one throughout the years, especially in the always-entertaining Brave and the Bold cartoon. Tony Stark certainly has one. Heck, even James Bond had one back in 1964. Know what I’m talking about? Jet packs. For as much as we’re living in the future of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, we still don’t have jet packs or flying cars. But in the world of Ghosts of Manhattan, at least one person possesses jet-powered flight in an alternate 1926. That would be the heroic vigilante, The Ghost.

In George Mann’s novel, America is in a Cold War with Great Britain since the end of the First World War. Coal-powered cars, with their black effluvia, clog the atmosphere above Manhattan, where the air is filled with dirigibles and biplanes capable of launching upright because of rockets on their wings. In this environment, the police have their hands full not only with run-of-the-mill crime but also with a criminal boss nicknamed The Roman. Like any good villain, he leaves a calling card: two Roman coins on the eye sockets of corpses.

Into this justice vacuum swoops The Ghost. Black-clad, with a duster-length trench coat, fedora, and enhance red goggles, The Ghost, in the opening chapter, foils a bank heist using deadly force and flechette guns (tiny steel darts). If you’ve seen Batman Begins, specifically the scene where Batman first does his thing, you’ll love this opening chapter. I did. It grabbed me, and I happily went with it.

What’s fun about this adventure with a masked hero is the steps Mann deploys to keep the reader guessing The Ghost’s alter-ego. I’ll admit it didn’t take a huge leap of logic to surmise the truth, but he still made it interesting. Gabriel Cross is a bored millionaire, known for his parties and his ladies. One lady in particular is Celeste Parker, a singer at a night club and a necessary component in The Roman’s plans. Felix Donovan is a detective in charge of the investigation into the murder of a famous senator. It doesn’t take too long for Donovan to meet the famous vigilante. From there, they team up to battle strange things and, with any luck, survive.

The book is fast-paced, a true modern pulp novel in the spirit of The Shadow and Batman. The history of this alternate America is delivered piecemeal and mostly in shorter paragraphs and bits of dialogue, a helpful way to show the broader world without stopping the action for pages and pages of tedious world-building. The Ghost is a believable hero. He relies on his wits and his gadgets–he’s got jet packs on his legs, allowing him to fly!–more so than martial arts and fighting ability. He also adjusts his strategies along the way as he encounters adversaries who cannot be defeated using his conventional weapons. In fact, these particular adversaries almost overcome The Ghost in their first encounter.

The book isn’t without some flaws. I thought the lead-up to the big finale seemed to come out of nowhere. Unlike, say, Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity or Dan Brown’s more famous novels, there aren’t a lot of clues that build upon one another, stumping the reader and the heroes along the way. It was almost as if Mann just needed a few action set pieces in order to build a larger story. True, the set pieces were good, and the down time wasn’t boring. I just felt a lot of drive to get to the end, even though I was not given a lot of clues as to what the end was going to be.

One of the things I liked about this novel is that Mann doesn’t feel the need to explain everything. Bi-planes have rocket packs for vertical lift-off. Okay. But there’s no mention of Robert Goddard or the history of the invention of the rockets. They just are. I’ve been told that this 1926-era world is the extension of Mann’s earlier, Victorian-era novels featuring Maurice Newbury and Veronica Hobbes. I’ve not read those books, so, perhaps there’s a longer explanation there.

Speaking of unexplained things in Ghosts of Manhattan, halfway through the book, I kept waiting for something science-fictional to occur. This novel is released by Pyr Books, a prominent publisher of science fiction and fantasy novels. I’ve seen the gorgeous covers (this cover art should stop people in their tracks) and read some of Pyr’s books, so I know what I’ve come to expect from them. Frankly, Ghosts of Manhattan is the exception. You take away the rockets, the coal-powered cars, and other paraphernalia decorating the scenery (including the big finish), and you end up with a book Lester Dent might have actually written in 1933 for Doc Savage. I don’t consider Doc to be science fiction. What’s so science-fictional about this book? Moreover, what’s so science-fictional about this type of alternate history?

When it comes to alt-history, I see two categories. There are stories like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South, which has time travel. Obviously, that’s SF. But what about Turtledove’s other Civil War book, How Few Remain and its sequels, which take a “what if” question and answer it from a non-SF point of view? Same could be said for Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which was nominated for an Edgar (mystery) and a Hugo (SF), winning the latter. There’s no SF trope in Chabon’s novel, just alt-history.

I posed this question to Pyr editor Lou Anders, and he gave me some food for thought. Citing a Norman Spinrad article from Asimov’s magazine, Anders wrote the following:

Basically, alt history has historically been maligned by at least a subset of SF culture as pretend “What if” stories that, as you point out with the Chabon, don’t have any other SFNal tropes/elements in them. But these days, when you have every physicist using the word “multiverse” and the most likely explanation for all the quantum weirdness is that we are in only one of a number of possible realities, while at the same time have people like Charles Stross debunking the idea that we will *ever* achieve human-crewed ships engaged in interplanetary travel, suddenly all the space opera starts to look like make believe wish fulfillment and the alt history like that which actually has some bearing in science.

But these are quibbles, hair-splitting when what is really important is whether or not the book in question is entertaining, moves you, and has something to say besides.

Ghosts of Manhattan is certainly entertaining, a true summer thrill-ride of a book. I’m looking forward to future installments of this character and his world. Do yourself a favor this summer: see Thor, Captain America, and all the other superhero films, and then head on over to a bookstore and pick up a copy of Mann’s book. In this day and age, you just can’t have enough heroes.

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Paul D. Brazill said...

Sounds good!The cover is great.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Alternate history troubles me. Is the author trying to push an agenda; is he trying to make things turn out the way he thinks they ought to? Or is it just pure fun. I guess all of these.
I found THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA by Philip Roth a difficult read for instance.

Scott Parker said...

Paul - One of the best of the recent covers.

Patti - In this case, only fun. Pure, summer fun. This is a book that could be a movie in the theaters.

Keri Mikulski said...

'Pure summer fun'. Perfect. Added to my TBR list. Thanks bunches for the recommendation. Happy Wednesday! ;)

Kathy said...

looks like this is going to be a good read. I am intrigued by the Ghost :D and the flying car reminds me of the
terrafugia, the first flying cars.

Perplexio said...

As a history major in college, Alternative history really intrigues me.

I've tried to read Harry Turtledove but was unable to enjoy his work because he does spend way too much time world-building. I find the world-building bits intriguing but they're so dry and totally kill the pacing of his novels. It sounds like this one is much better in its world-building technique. I'll have to check it out.

Jack Finney did a couple of time travel books that were pretty decent. The 2nd one delved into alternative history a bit. In the present era (in which the book was written) there's a branch of one of the US intelligence agencies that's investigating the occurrence of conflicting memories of major world events starting with the Titanic in 1912. Some people remember the Titanic arriving safely in NY Harbor and the ensuing era of prosperity that it ushered in as well as the actual sinking of the Titanic and the inevitable World Wars. The protagonist of the first book is also the protagonist in the 2nd. I recommend Finney's books if you've not read them. The first is better written but I like the concept of the 2nd book a bit better. I just wish Finney had spent more time fleshing it out. It felt rushed.

Ellen Booraem said...

I unabashedly love alternate history, at least the ones I've read. And steam-punk is always a hoot. Thanks for a fun review!

Barrie said...

I loved the 2nd paragraph of this review! A vigilante ghost sounds very interesting indeed. ;) Thanks for joining in!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting review. Thanks. Book cover is also wonderful.

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