Ghosts of Manhattan takes place in an alternative New York City in the 1920’s, where cars are coal-fuelled, the Great War featured airship bombing raids and America is engaged in an ongoing cold war with Great Britain. Vicious murders are happening across the city, the work of gangsters led by a figure known only as ‘The Roman’ due to his strange calling-card; shiny Roman coins placed on eyes of the deceased. “This is a time in need of heroes“, reads the blurb on the back of the book. “It is a time for the Ghost“.
I did not finish this book.
I wanted to love this book. The cover is brilliant and the idea sounds very rich and intriguing; anything that can be described as “steampunk” and “superhero” and “noir” all in one go has my interest straight off the bat. It’s a shame how much of a let-down it was.
Firstly, the title makes absolute sense given that absolutely no character within this book has any life to them at all. To call them two-dimensional is being kind. This is a plot populated by ghosts of characters, where the narrative voice tells us a certain character is good, or tortured, or innocent, or pure, and we’re supposed to go along with it given no other evidence to back this up. We learn absolutely nothing from the dialogue because instead of any meaningful conversations, we get massive chunky paragraphs explaining everything about the world and characters that we need to know. What dialogue there is veers between stilted and perfectly fine, but it reads like a puppet show. It’s like a distillation of every other 1920s-set story I’ve ever seen, heard or read with all the life removed and replaced by textual freeze-frames of our hero posing on rooftops in his flowing black coat and red goggles.
Graphic novel material this is not, but it felt like a very poor Batman imitation every time the Ghost appeared and swept about with his propulsion rockets and weaponry. The Shadow, too, got there first, and to be honest, I’d have rather read that again. All the “steampunk” elements in the book (I got halfway and gave up so if there’s more, I apologise, but I couldn’t make it that far) are the coal-powered cars, a few moss-filled goons and the Ghost’s own machinery. There’s no exploration of the science, no wider ramifications of the progress of technology; what I liked was a flashback to an airship bombardment, and the mention of the clockwork Geisha girls was a fascinating insight into what the world building could have conjured up had it been more deftly handled. That, I wanted to see more of.
And then there’s the hero’s romantic foil, Celeste, the nightclub singer with a secret.
SPOILERS ahead for Chapter Seven onwards, specifically involving a scene in a bar and a confrontation with guns. If you want to read this book at some point (I am totally prepared to allow that other people will get more from this than I did, it has a lot of very positive reviews) then skip the rest of this section.
One of the heroes – Gabriel – has been sitting in a bar admiring Celeste, mulling over how much he loves her and how beautiful and feminine she is, enjoying her performance as does everyone else in the room. Armed men storm in and demand that she is handed over. A confrontation ensues. There is shooting. Gabriel manages to get Celeste to cover and after a moment realizes the shooting has stopped – and he wonders why. He comes to the conclusion that they’re not shooting any more because they want Celeste unharmed.
So he decides he’s going to risk it and uses her as a HUMAN SHIELD to get them out. Now, I don’t know, but I’m sure that the risk of him being wrong outweighs the benefit here. It doesn’t feel right. And the fact that the hero is using a nightclub singer as a SHIELD rather makes his heroism more of strange, sordid thing than it should be. Even better, he later reflects on how he “tried to shield her” from getting as “damaged” as he.
At that point I knew this book and I were going to be in great disagreement on various points. The luminously feminine Celeste is held up as a beacon of innocence and purity; then she shoots two men. She’s a pretty crack shot, as it turns out. Gabriel proceeds to compare what is clearly a harrowing experience with his own in the Great War where he watched his friend get shot, which was fine for a second, until I ticked it over in my mind and realized that what’s just happened is the author, via his character, effectively compared a running shoot-out and a struggle in car with the experiences of a soldier from the First World War trenches.
I tried to read on, but every time Celeste is mentioned, or seen on-page, it feels like we have to be reminded that she’s “broken”. She’s the only female character in the book so far. She is effectively so much of a non-character she has to be propped up by men like Gabriel – she never really speaks for herself but we get their thoughts, in the narrative block-paragraph-voice, telling us what she must be feeling and what she’s like. We never see, we barely hear from her. Celeste is the most ghostly character in the book.
Reader, I left it there. There was no enjoyment for me in a story that I feel like I’ve seen in a dozen other places, or in writing that persistently irritated me, or characters that were so flat you could fax them. I’m a fan of superhero vigilantes but there wasn’t enough about the Ghost to differentiate him from the other stars and pretenders in that field.
This felt like a first or second early draft of a much better book. I’ve heard that Mann’s other works are great and I intend to read them regardless of how much I didn’t like this book – and in fairness I must point out that there are parts of Ghosts of Manhattan that are good. The author admires his hero a little too much at times but isn’t shy of hurting him and having him make mistakes, which makes the action scenes more edgy than usual, and Mann is very, very good at coming up with potentially scintillating set pieces.
As noir, pulpy stories go it’s not the best, but big fans of noir would get more enjoyment from it than steampunk fans. I would have a hard time recommending this book to anyone who knows the steampunk genre or the superhero genre; anyone who hasn’t seen much of either, or who is very much into their pulp books, would probably get a kick out of it.