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
"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
"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
"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