Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Ghosts of Manhattan

George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan is billed as a steampunk superhero novel, which is how it found its way onto my reading list. I like steampunk. I like superheroes. A mix of the two sounded great! And then I cracked the book open last week to discover that not only is there a steampunk superhero, but he's a steampunk Batman. He shares the attitude, the protectiveness, part of a costume, the secret identity type, the propensity for wanton destruction and weaponry. The story itself revolves around mobsters and staged murders and a mysterious mob boss, and features a straight-cop detective along with the Ghost. It's fun, it's full of action, it reads quickly. So, y'know, all good there.

Unfortunately, I've got more quibbles for this book than I have for others. Mostly this is a factor of my reading tastes, I think. I'm used to stories that have a bit more than just the action plot, be it social commentary, character development, side plots, or whatever. I'm especially used to steampunk novels (Dream of Perpetual Motion, Boneshaker, Difference Engine) that have strong social undertones, rather than the muted commentary Ghosts of Manhattan does. The former have a lot to say about how technology's altering society for the worse. Ghosts of Manhattan talks about organized crime and people drifting through life without a purpose, which strikes me as a 1920s thing rather than a steampunk thing. The rich of New York were constantly partying in our reality too.

Anyway, we're not talking about steampunk here, we're talking about superheroes. (Though can I say, the steampunk weapons, devices, and vehicles in Ghosts? Awesome.) The Ghost has the hard-boiled, cynical vigilante thing down, though it's never quite explained why he feels the need to do dress up and fight people. Yes, protect the city. Yes, organized crime is bad. Yes, traumatized WWI vet. But I feel there should be something a little more. However, he's very good at getting the job done and the backstory would probably weigh the book down a little, so I'm not quibbling a lot. Also not quibbling about the random mystical stuff that crops up here and there, because I'm not sure it would be steampunk without at least a little random mystical stuff.

I had a tough time enjoying the characters too, but again that's my fault, not George Mann's. Mann's characters are fully realized, if a little devoid of probably-unnecessary backstory. I just like a little more snark in my MCs, and the book before Ghosts was Cloud Atlas, one of those books that's so good it's guaranteed to spoil whatever comes after it. 

So: cool hero, cool story, cool inventions. I read the book quickly, or at least it felt like I did. If you like action stories, you'll like this. The fights are fantastic! Ghosts is a little weak on the mystery elements—the clues come a little too conveniently for my liking—but I did think I had the villain pegged several times when it was somebody else entirely. It's largely a story of archetypes, on one level, which works because so many superheroes and villains are archetypes. The Ghost feels like he could've come from any of the early comic books, and that's certainly a good thing. 

I know I've complained about Ghosts here, but I definitely enjoyed reading it and don't regret the time it took me to do so. It's certainly not a bad novel. If you're interested in reading it, do so. If you're not, well, don't.

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