Published on July 17th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
Ghosts of War – George Mann
Another Steampunk novel?! Another sequel which I didn’t realise until midway through the book?!
Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann seems to be a relatively little known book and its sequel, Ghosts of War, more so.
Found gracing the general fiction section at a charity shop, the front cover depicting a zeppelin above New York intrigued me.
Set during the Prohibition era with flappers and the like, the plot is based on an alternate history timeline as is usually common with steampunk. In this world, after Queen Victoria and her artificially prolonged reign, came Queen Alberta whose war-obsessed mentality negatively impacts Britain, who is currently in a cold war with America.
The book is based in America, particularly New York. The main character is Gabriel Cross, possibly the worst case of over-romanticising a name I’ve heard, he is some form of a playboy that also has a dark and damaged past as a WWI fighter pilot. In order to maintain a semblance of sanity, he’s done what all good citizens do and take up the mantel of being a powerless superhero, but luckily for Gabriel, he lives in a steampunk 20’s, so he can make the tech to kit himself out.
He is The Ghost, a hero of the night, who wears a cape and a sneer for the bad guys. We’re thrown straight into the action when he goes on the hunt for some flying brass creatures which have been nicking people and making off with them back to their lair and The Ghost is trying to stop it.
So, already from the start I had questions, which I thought would get answered after the obligatory action scene ends, but this is a sequel so it just never answers the questions like, why is Gabriel Cross rich? How is he able to make his gadgets work? Later on there comes more complex questions like, why are the police force so under-powered?
As the book progresses the world turns from “Steampunk Superhero” to Lovecraftian horror as a creature from another dimension gets involved. Pretty heavy stuff to be laying on a genre piece like this. It seems like the main arc of the first novel’s story covered this Cthulhu-like creature that entered our dimension by dark magic and science, however like with every aspect of the technology in this world, there is no explanation or plausibility following any of these ideas as interesting as some appear to be.
Steampunk, unlike all other types of genre fiction focuses almost entirely on the technology, as opposed to using the setting to tell relevant stories/or express viewpoints counter to that of our current world. Sometimes, they go to such lengths as to attempt to justify Victorian era philosophies or even ignore environmental issues entirely, just to remain inkeeping with action and spy/detective stories set in a kooky place with killer gadgets. Unfortunately for Ghosts of War, the nerdisms of Steampunk are simply not there. Perhaps in the previous book some of the details are explained, but why on earth would someone read a steampunk novel where the gadgets make no sense?
The book is clearly aimed at adults unlike the previous steampunk book I read, which was aimed at teenagers, however that book was able to offer better realised gadgetry and mostly concepts that had relevance in the book’s plot and structure. There was no way you could take it out and it remain the same, however I feel like there could be everything taken out of this book and it would simply be a sub-par detective story, with illogical conclusions and no relevant commentary to offer on any of the key issues it could have.
There were two themes in the book, that of loss and of the horrors of war. Firstly, throughout the entire novel our hero is lamenting the death of a lover in the previous book, however he seems to be rather superficially upset, also when he’s hopping onto another bird when it’s only been a couple of weeks makes it seem all the less important. Then there’s the War hero side of things. Unfortunately, without making a large effort, it’s always going to be difficult to try and pull the war vet has trauma line as quite frankly it’s been overdone to the point of becoming a comical trope. Yes, HUMOUR out of real-life terror. That is how clichéd this is. What little was done right stood out as we were taken above war-torn fields of France, but to then introduce to an alien squid in a barn really detracts from the experience, reminding us that there is little room for war, steampunk, horror and love issues in one book.
Overall it is an enjoyable book, but notably as a guilty pleasure, the steampunk aesthetic is merely just that and many plot points don’t hold to scrutiny, but there is a lot of action and it’s enjoyably cheesy, with the obligatory Batman-style helper detective stealing the show. The new love interest serves as a guntoting piece of eyecandy with a grief-healing philosophy and that’s all there is to it.
Fans of Steampunk will feel let down by the sloppy approach to a beloved genre, but comic book fans will love the gritty, action superhero character of The Ghost and the mystical element behind the book’s main show, the creature from the other dimension. It’s only short so it’s probably worth a read either way, after the first book of course though. I’ll be looking out for more from this guy in future.