What if the usual trappings of the Steampunk sub-genre were extended beyond the Victorian era and beyond the United Kingdom? What would an alternate New York in the 1920s look like? This is the jumping-off point for George Mann’s Steampunk-tinged, noir and pulp influenced novel.
The year is 1926 in an alternate New York from our own. The streets are choked with coal-powered cars and there are bi-plane launches off the roofs of most buildings. America is caught in a Cold War with the British Empire which has kept Queen Victoria alive, through artificial means, until the age of 107, and the tension between the two countries is running high. And a serial killer is murdering people in the city and leaving ancient Roman coins on their eyes as a calling card.
While Police Inspector Felix Donovan is working to solve the mystery of this series of murders, someone else is working toward the same goal. The press has dubbed him “The Ghost”: a mysterious vigilante who wears a mask, a fedora, a dark duster, and rocket boots, and patrols the city at night carrying an arsenal of weapons, including a flechette gun (a shotgun-like device that shoots small, razor-sharp pieces of metal). All of the clues in this case point toward an Italian-American gang lead by “The Roman.” But who is “The Roman?” And why is he killing?
Ghosts of Manhattan is clearly heavily influenced by both the relatively new sub-genre of Steampunk literature, and the crime fiction of the 1930s and '40s, as well as the comic books of the same period. The similarities to Batman (a rich playboy with a troubled past, who fights crime as a vigilante) are unavoidable, and this is possibly the book's biggest failing. However, it is important to note that even Batman seemed similar to The Shadow (the crime fighting alter-ego of wealthy man-about-town Lamont Cranston), when that character first appeared in 1939. If you can get past this, Ghosts of Manhattan is great fun! The world Mann has created is nicely drawn and appears to be full of possibilities for continued adventures. The writing is in a pulp/crime novel style consistent with the period. While this results in a plot that is somewhat predictable, there are a few unexpected twists and turns to keep the story moving along. The action is fast-paced, and there is enough detective work to satisfy those looking for more than a series of well-choreographed fights.
The back of the book announces “Introducing the world’s first Steampunk superhero.” Here’s hoping this isn’t The Ghost’s only adventure!