Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Lit Geek
  Book Reviews by James Maxey
August 2009

Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

The majority of the books I review are freebies. Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann is a book I purchased shortly after its release because, from the description, it's the sort of novel I'm a sucker for: a prose superhero tale that treats its source material respectfully. Even better, the eponymous Ghost is a homage to the pulp superheroes that predated the comic book superheroes. When I was a teenager, my love of comics led me to hunt down the pulp novels that predated them. I'd find the ragged magazines at flea markets and antique stores and read the tales with the ancient pages crumbling in my hands. Ghosts of Manhattan owes its roots more to Walter Gibson's gritty Shadow stories of the 1930s than to the brightly costumed adventurers that would become the public face of superheroes just a decade later.

Since I'm a fan of this material, I feel free to be a little harsh with it. The book's biggest sin is that, in staying so true to its pulp fiction origins, it adds nothing new to the genre. The Ghost's main gimmicks are some rocket boots, a gun that shoots exploding darts, and some night-vision goggles, fairly unoriginal equipment even back in the 30s. The most disappointing thing about his arsenal is that, alas, it doesn't really do anything to explain why the protagonist, Gabriel Cross, has chosen the moniker of "Ghost." I would have liked a character by this name to possess some power or trick that seems to tie in with the theme. Even a smoke bomb to facilitate mysterious entrances and exits would have helped. Since Gideon thinks of himself as the Ghost in scenes written from this POV, I assume that he picked his own superhero name. But the papers, the cops, and the gangsters all know him as the Ghost as well, and I'm at a loss to explain why.

My second gripe is that Mann has chosen to set the Ghost in an alternate history of 1920s New York so that he can blend in some steampunk elements. For instance, all the automobiles are powered by coal. On the other hand, there's an airplane battle in the middle of the book where a fuel line gets punctured, and I presume the fuel leaking out is something akin to gasoline. And the Ghost's rocket boots aren't coal powered, or at least I assume they aren't. Then, on top of the more primitive technology for the automobiles, somehow lasers have been perfected ahead of schedule and now holograms are common. When a holographic statue is used as a prop in the opening scene, I assumed that the holograms might be important to the premise -- after all, with a little holographic technology, it wouldn't be that tough to simulate a ghost. Unfortunately, it's an idea never explored. The alternate technologies were a distraction rather than an integral part of the plot. This story could have easily been set in our own world in 1920s New York.

One final gripe: There's a major character named Gideon in addition to the protagonist Gabriel. Since both names start with G and fire off Bible synapses in my brain, I spent half the book confusing the two.

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So, with the gripes behind me, am I glad I bought the book? Definitely. After a stumbling start, the story begins to build momentum and I think the second half of the novel can fairly be described as a page-turner. Gabriel, the Ghost, earned my sympathy as a tormented survivor of war making a stand against evil in an attempt to silence his own inner demons. The supernatural elements that get blended into the plot are deftly introduced, so that by the time the final chapters roll around the reader is prepared for a fight against something much more dangerous than mere gangsters. The action sequences are expertly choreographed, and I liked that the Ghost's technology doesn't always work smoothly. One of my favorite moments in the book was when the Ghost staggers into his lab after a fight that didn't go well and sets to work improving his various gadgets. It made him more realistic not only that he could learn from his mistakes, but that he could make mistakes to start with. This isn't Batman, always in control and one step ahead of everyone else. The Ghost is much more human, taking his lumps and surviving by a mix of wits, luck, and knowing when it's time to turn tail and run.

If you're a fan of prose superhero action, and especially if you're a fan of pulp fiction heroes from a more innocent time, Ghosts of Manhattan should be put on your list of books to read this summer.

Rum and Runestones edited by Valerie Griswold-Ford

I happened to be dressed as a pirate at ConCarolinas when I encountered author Davey Beauchamp promoting copies of Rum and Runestones, an anthology with the combined theme of magic and pirates. How could I not review a book that fell into my hands at such an appropriate moment? The sails and sorcery theme proved to be fertile ground, producing stories both dark and humorous, avoiding, for the most part, rip-offs of Pirates of the Caribbean.

The stories and their authors are:

"Steer a Pale Course" by Gail Martin. Gail is best known as a novelist, author of the highly successful Summoner series. She turns in a polished tale of betrayal and revenge, though the final pages of the story introduce so many open-ended ideas that this felt more like the opening chapter to a novel.

"Cursed Luck" by BA Collins. I've never read anything else by BA Collins, but her story was among my favorites in the anthology due to its sheer audacity. In a little over 30 pages she introduces a whole slew of interesting characters and manages to pull off the tricky literary feet of writing characters sharing the same body, as her pirate ghosts possess a modern biker gang, with personalities swapping from contemporary to ancient within the span of a single sentence. It's a literary machine-gun spray of sex, violence, and bawdy humor, that works to create a truly fun read.

"Booty Haul" by Danny Birt. The humor in this tale quickly grew too silly for my tastes. That said, I'm guessing this story might work very well at a live reading, where the author can introduce some of the comic beats that didn't quite translate to the page. The parody of "We Arr Pirates," meant to be sung to the tune of "We Will Rock You," is probably a show-stopper at cons.

"God Empress of the Sea" by James S. Reichert. The only story in the book with an Asian theme, this is a well-constructed coming of age tale that was perhaps just a touch too serious when compared with the rest of the stories.

"Thar Be Magic" by Laurel Anne Hill. Like "Cursed Luck," this story brings old time pirates into a modern setting, though with a somewhat tamer approach. Despite a few "Shiver me timbers," the possessing pirates never had quite the same charm.

"A Treacherous Stone" by MJ Blehart. A tale of dueling wizards on the high seas, well told, but it didn't have much pirate flavor.

"Making History" by Tera Fulbright. A modern astronaut is transported through time to meet Grace O'Malley, a real-life 16th century Irish pirate captain who was the terror of the seas in her day.

"Mister Adventure in Neverland" by Davey Beauchamp. In this tale, a modern man gets magically sucked into the world of Peter Pan to encounter lost boys and pirates.

"X Spots the Mark" by Michael A Ventrella. Another favorite, this was a well constructed, very funny tale of two rival pirates attempting to get the best of one another using magical treasure maps and hefty doses of voodoo. Plot twist is layered onto plot twist, but each revelation is expertly presented so that, while the reader may get dizzy from all the reversals, he won't get confused or lost.

"In the Runes" by Danielle Ackley-McPhail. Pirates, dragons, and some actual runestones. Since the word is in the title of the anthology, it's nice to see one story where the plot is built around them.

"A Final Battle" by Stuart Jaffe. First mate Worthington becomes captain of a pirate ship when the old captain is killed in a naval battle. Alas, Worthington possesses manners, caution, and a plentiful dose of common sense, traits not normally attributed to pirates, and so faces mutiny during his first moments on the job. However, when the crew frees a captive witch to restore their old captain to life, unleashing a ravenous undead monster, Worthington gets a second chance to earn his crew's loyalty, and demonstrate that perhaps caution is a useful trait after all.

"At Map's End" by Misty Massey. Massey is known for her pirate novel Mad Kestrel, and this story features Kestral the pirate in a quest for treasure that leads instead to an encounter with a supernatural evil.

Overall, Rum and Runestones is a worthy addition to any pirate-lover's booty.

Read more by James Maxey

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