Underground Reading: Dunn's Conundrum by Stan Lee

New Releases: Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

Ghosts of Manhattan

Billed as the first "steampunk superhero", Ghosts of Manhattan inventively features a playboy millionaire with a hidden side - a dark vigilante. 

When Gideon Cross isn't prowling the roof tops of a fictional New York analogue, he's doing his best to look frivolous at society parties. Fortunately, he's got allies: a slinky female friend with a mysterious criminal past, a cunning butler and a police inspector that will bend the rules to protect his family. 

Finally - his enemy. A mysterious underworld figure known as "The Roman", has united the gangs of New York. The police are powerless, only the Ghost can save us now.

Inventive genius. 

All sarcasm aside, hell would be having to choose between re-reading Ghosts of Manhattan and re-watching "Daleks in Manhattan". If the latter was the low point in a season of Doctor Who (pig people and half-Daleks, why?!), the former may be the nadir of the entire steampunk movement. 

I'm not sure what New York has done to attract such abuse from genre writers, but it must have been truly, truly awful.

One of the more spectacular let-downs is that, for the first half of the book, the author never actually, flat-out says that "Gabriel Cross" is the Ghost. This may be the worst-kept secret in genre history. In fact, it is so blindingly-obvious that Cross is the Ghost, I began to develop optimistic delusions that the book might be doing something really, really clever. The feeling grew, until, on the tantalizingly edge of almost being perhaps slightly interesting - the big reveal comes out: the playboy millionaire actually is the gloomy vigilante! I look forward to the sequel, when we learn that Darth Vader is Luke's father, Rosebud is a sled and, against all odds, the sun actually comes up in the morning. 

As a result, I can't tell if Ghosts of Manhattan was written in a weird, parallel universe where Batman never existed, or if the writer just forgot to mention the Ghost's identity six chapter earlier.

Incidentally (and unsurprisingly), the love interest is just plain awful - the picture of regressive genre behaviour. She shags the playboy millionaire without actually liking him (presumably because she can femininely-intuit his inner moodiness - always appealing to the ladeez), she's got no will of her own, she gets rescued at least three times, and she's central to the "plot" because she's essentially a McGuffin with boobs. And, no, I can't remember her name, which, frankly, says a lot.

The steampunk elements, such as they are, are seemingly added as afterthoughts - like someone went back through the book and added the word "coal-powered" at random. ("Quick, throw another shovelful on the Three-Turbined Plot-Churner, we've got books to sell!"). If you've got the gumption to stick with the book in its entirety, there's a strange, semi-Dunsanian (fuck if I'm comparing any part of this book to Lovecraft) ending that involves tentacles. As steampunk and the supernatural are now inexorably linked, that should count for something. Still, like the bi-planes, the coal-cars and the near-immortal Queen Victoria, the tentacle-monsters really don't have anything to do with anything else in the book, which, frankly, is to be expected. Someone along the way went wild with the bumper book of sub-genre stickers and converted this from bat-trash into a steampunk sensation.

This is a bad book. A weirdly bad book. I don't understand how it got printed, and I don't understand why other reviewers don't seem to loathe it as violently as I do. I see this book as everything wrong with fantasy - it is regressive, plagiaristic, boring world-building without a hint of character or original thought.  Specifically, I see this book as everything wrong with steampunk - a sad legacy of an original creative concept that's been shamelessly bastardized, watered-down and generally stamped-upon.