I usually make use of this paragraph to preface and somewhat summarize the review to follow, but I feel I’ve gone into enough details in by criticism below to warrant a shortened introduction. George Mann, most famous for his delightful victorian steampunk series of ‘Newbury & Hobbes Investigations’ comes back with the second volume of his New York based steampunk superhero saga, Ghosts of War. Though on the whole more enjoyable than not, this second volume suffers many of the same pitfalls as its predecessor though it does show hope for progress. Read on past the blurb for a more comprehensive explanation.
New York City is being plagued by a pack of ferocious brass raptors - strange skeletal creations with batlike wings that swoop out of the sky, attacking people and carrying them away into the night. The Ghost has been tracking these bizarre machines in an effort t locate their nest and discover the purpose of the abductions, but so far has found himself at every turn.
Meanwhile, Inspector Donovan of the NYPD thinks he may have stumbled upon a plot to escalate the cold war with the British Empire into a full-blown conflict, a war that would bring utter devastation, not just to Britain, but to the world.
Their efforts to put an end to this conspiracy bring the two men into an uneasy alliance with Peter Rutherford, a British spy who is loose in Manhattan, protecting the interests of his country. They also have the unlikely assistance of Ginny, the Ghost’s drunken ex-lover and sharpshooter, who walks back into his life having disappeared six years earlier under mysterious circumstances.
Suffering from increasingly lucid flashbacks to World War I and subjected to a rooftop chases, an encounter with a mechanized madman, and the constant threat of airborne predators, can the Ghost derail the conspiracy and prevent the war with the British from escalating out of control? The fate of the world is hanging in the balance.
Mann truly is at it’s best when things get fun. When he serves up the likes of the final confrontation/take down of the indiscriminate big baddy of this novel, there’s really no denying that he knows how to play to his strengths. Like with his previous books, at its best Ghosts of War plunges us into bouts of steampunk-tinged euphoria with wild action and adventure galore, all executed in brilliant fashion. It’s almost enough to make up for the barely more than mediocre plot that fills the rest of the novel. Ghosts of War definitely marks an improvement of the series over Ghosts of Manhattan, but it shamefully does not meet the standards of Mann’s ‘Newbury & Hobbes’ books.
I’m aware that the first ‘Ghost’ book got its fair share of praise - of criticism too, but more praise - and so I before launching into the writing of this review I decided to look at what the main arguments in favor of Ghosts of Manhattan were as I was not entirely convinced by it myself. Reading my largely positive review, you might be surprised at how critical I’m being now, but looking at it myself, I can’t help but read naivety in my review. With a year’s worth more of reviewing behind me (that’s about 100 more reviews, for those counting) I find myself a bit jaded about a few of my earlier reviews, that of Ghosts of Manhattan included and find myself unimpressed with that novel.
But let’s get back to major recurring argument made in its favor: it has no desire to be taken seriously, and any lack of depth or complexity is a direct result of a clear, modest pulp aspiration. I get that. I have no problem with fun for the sake of fun (as long as it’s appropriate). Read no further than my review of The Goblin Corps for that. Or even of Mann’s other novels. But I do have a problem with that fact that in spite of this, it still looks to me as if Mann wants his ‘Ghost’ books to be read as something more than a solid, entertaining pulp-like novel.
In Ghosts of Manhattan that manifested itself in the form of the borderline ridiculous attempt of portraying Gabriel/The Ghost as two separate characters (sorry, spoilers... except not really), one a rich, wasteful bachelor and the other a vigilante, without the reader realizing it until late in the novel. As if none of us had ever heard of Batman before. Thankfully Ghosts of War is beginning to lose the Batman vibe but still instead of the multiple personas, now Gabriel is plagued with traumatic World War I memories. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the personality troubles somewhat persist, now he’s got war stories to justify it.
This, again, would be fine if Mann was truly making a play to get away from the simple pulp/steampunk-superhero book, but his continued attempts at giving Gabriel depth are unconvincing and become plain useless as the flashbacks start breaking up the flow of the story. It’s an improvement on the intelligence-insulting structure of the first novel, so I still hold out hope for the third novel, but I’m starting to realize that I really wish Mann wouldn’t try so damn hard. We know what he’s good at, and I assume he does to from the continuously increasing quality of ‘Newbury & Hobbes’ but he seems to adamantly refuse to concentrate on his strengths in the ‘Ghost’ novels, other than, obviously, those bits that are good.
Part of the problem most likely lies with Gabriel himself. He’s a good character for the noir setting of the book, but because of his lack of human attachment to anyone else, it’s difficult to relate to him, even when he shares his horrifying war stories. The closest thing to love he has is for the city, Manhattan, but let’s face it, most of us don’t hold the kind of love for a city that would lead us to risk our lives for it. And I’ll admit it, the way it’s set up and the way his relationship with other characters develop in Ghosts of War not to mention his solving of a few personal issues means things are looking much better going forwards. For the moment it just doesn’t cut it.
I really don’t mean for this review to sound too harsh (though it does) so for those still reading, I’d like to say I did like this book. But it has so much potential, it angers me to see it wasted. The way I see it, the ‘Ghost’ series could head in two separate directions: Mann could continue to groom his characters into more realistic and more relatable beings, or the series could wholeheartedly embrace what it does best, the ‘fun factor,’ a.k.a. lot’s of exciting action in a clever steampunk world. Mann obviously looks to be taking the first option, and knowing what he was able to achieve on his third try with ‘Newbury & Hobbes’ I can’t blame him. I just hope he gets things in gear.
Since I’ve been so long-winded I’ll take the time to sum things up. At the end of the day, those of you who enjoyed Ghosts of Manhattan will not be disappointed by Ghosts of War. Those of you who harbored discontent at that first volume will not see those issues addressed, though there’s strong indication that we might be getting there. As for myself, I found myself tremendously entertained by Ghosts of War at its height and sorely disheartened in its lesser moments. But on the whole, I found myself taking pleasure in the story, which is why, in spite of all my ranting, I’m still looking forward Mann’s next ‘Ghost’ novel. Ghosts of War was published by Pyr on the 26th of July in the US and will be published in September in the UK.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
George Mann's Website: http://georgemann.wordpress.com/
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