Geroge Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan bills itself as introducing the world's first steampunk superhero. Atmospheric and pleasingly enigmatic, the novel pulls us into world of pure pulp.
Ghosts of Manhattan introduces the Ghost, a millionaire-playboy ex-army pilot and engineer turned vigilante. He haunts the streets of an alternate 1920s Manhattan, in which all the cars are coal-powered, everyone has a holographic telephone, and apparently the whole place is run by mobsters. The worst of the mobsters, and enigmatic figure called the Roman, has been performing enigmatic murders which may or may not be connected to some inscrutable, enigmatic plan to destroy the city, and requires the kidnapping of the Ghost's girlfriend. The whole thing is very enigmatic.
Mann is clearly writing a pulp novel here, and he doesn't resist indulging in the style's excesses - for good and ill. He's got over-dramatic language (the half-poem that begins and ends the novel is a fairly good and ridiculous example of that), some clumsy, sometimes baffling metaphors (he describes the moon hanging in the sky "like the smoldering tip of a cigarette", but if this alternate world has an especially red moon or especially moon-colored cigarettes, it's never mentioned), and a plot that hinges precariously on main characters failing to share pertinent information with each other.
The pulpy style sometimes generates an interesting sense of atmosphere, and there's something appealing about the setting. Frankly, though, while the definition of "steampunk" isn't wholly clear, even in the loosest sense of the word, Ghosts of Manhattan barely qualifies. Aside from the fact that all the cars run on coal, there's nothing especially recognizable as "steampunk." The book has a feel much more concomitant with the setting of things like The Rocketeer or The Shadow—an old-fashioned film-noir world with some peculiarly advanced technology. Moreover, Mann doesn't really indulge his setting: apparently, steam-power has made holography viable, but how and why is left up in the air. There's no talk of how this alternate history has affected society at all, in fact; except for a few passing (and irrelevant) references to a "Cold War" with the British Empire, the Ghost's Manhattan is essentially exactly like regular old 1920s Manhattan.
As for the Ghost himself, he's a bit of a hard character to like, and a trickier one to get to know. He seems almost literally schizophrenic, as he suffers from flashbacks to his time in World War I (and possibly his encounter with some Lovecraftian horrors?), but only in his guise as millionaire playboy Gabriel Cross. When he's in full-blown vigilante mode, the flashbacks are nowhere to be found, which is a little bit of a shame: a vigilante whose escapades were sometimes threatened by his PTSD might have made for an interesting choice (and might have also explained why he used a pneumatic flechette gun, instead of just a regular gun). He has a code of honor that prevents him from killing goons that don't shoot at him first, but also has no trouble standing around in the open and giving them plenty of opportunity. The code also disappears later in the novel when it becomes inconvenient ("Now was not the time for squeamishness and morals. Now was the time for action.") then reasserts itself when it's needed for a dramatic moment.
The real problem with the novel is really that there just doesn't seem to be much to it. The Ghost's flashbacks to the war are distressingly generic; the first few action sequences (in which the Ghost fights some "goons" who are: pulling off a "bank job", engaging in a "protection racket") are likewise. The story relies heavily on the audience's understanding of the broad archetype of a Criminal Mastermind, as the Roman doesn't seem to be up to very much beyond what the Ghost insists on. When we finally do learn what the Roman's dastardly plan is (which comes literally, completely out of the blue), and how it's part of an ancient struggle that's been going on for centuries, it's still a bit of a disappointment: the resolution comes via improbable coincidence, and Mann hasn't even bothered to give names to these ancient players.
All that extensive criticism aside, Ghosts of Manhattan does enjoy some of the merits of pulp novels: it's not overlong (a reader of a mind could tear through it in a few hours), it's got some carefully choreographed and gruesome action sequences, a few nods to a vaguely interesting setting, and—if you like that sort of thing—plenty of meditations by the main character on the hollowness of life.
Ghosts of Manhattan is currently available from Pyr Books, and you can find some sample chapters here if you'd like to check it out for yourself.
Chris Braak is editor of lit & cult/ure blog Threat Quality Press, and emperor of the moon in exile. His credentials, accomplishments, and accolades, are too numerous to list.