New Releases: The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

New Releases: Gods of Manhattan by Al Ewing

517RuLcdhNL._SS500_ I've never met Al Ewing, but I have a vision of him in mind as some sort of Wild West gambler and gunman - much like the notorious Doc Holliday.

"Yup," Ewing growls raspily, "I'll write in your world. (breaks to spit a long stream of tobacco on the floor) But I'm a-writin' it my way. You need my words? You got 'em. (shuffles cards with a flourish) But them words? They're mine. I ain't taking no responsibility for what happens next." (pats dancing girl on bottom, shoots bartender for short-changing him)

Take, for example, Death Got No Mercy, Ewing's outstanding contribution to the Afterblight Chronicles. Whilst the rest of the series oscillated between the blockbuster (Spurrier, Levene) and the somber (Andrews, Kane), Ewing's bizarre, legitimately post-modern, tongue-in-cheek contribution was from a different world altogether.

It was brilliant - there's no doubting it - but it was a disturbing, over-the-top, self-reflective type of brilliance that went somewhere very different than rest of the series. In Ewing's book, men punch bears. And then go on chapter-length explorations of the nature of authorship. Cross Joe Lansdale with Grant Morrison, and you start to get close to Ewing's take on the Afterblight.  

Meanwhile, in Pax Britannia, Ewing has skillfully eschewed every traditional steampunk convention and carved out his very own take on the New World. Jon Green owns Europe (as well as the oceans and, most recently, the moon), but once you cross the Atlantic, that territory is all Ewing.

El SombraEwing's first contribution to the series was El Sombra, in which he rewrote the Zorro myth to have a schizophrenic Mexican poet battle Nazi robot stormtroopers. El Sombra was wall-to-wall violence, with the occasional break in the bloodshed to point out how completely batshit crazy the 'hero' of the book really was. The half-nude, all-bonkers El Sombra is the polar opposite to the dapper and well-composed Ulysses Quicksilver, Jon Green's recurring hero.

In Gods of Manhattan, Ewing's bloodthirsty creation returns, but, this time, he's merely a background character. El Sombra, on the hunt for more Nazis to carve up, hitches a ride to New York. The Big Apple of the USSA is a very different place - both from reality and from the steampunk London across the ocean. The States are still recovering from a series of violent Civil Wars, as well as from battles with overseas enemies. A vague ally of the Victorian Empire, the USSA is still sorting out most of its own problems. Still, New York is the place to be. Bohemian hedonism, artistic wildness and, of course... Doc Thunder.

Death got no mercySee, the USSA has a superhero. Doc Thunder stop bullets, leaps buildings and battles evil - if it weren't for him, the USSA would be gone. More people wear his lightning bolt than the American flag, and, wherever he goes, he's welcome. But Thunder isn't the only super-entity in town. His own team (Monk, the gorilla reporter and Maya, the immortal goddess) are dealing with The Blood Spider (a lethal vigilante) as well as a horde of leftover bad guys from previous adventures. Then El Sombra arrives, and with him comes the spark that ignites the whole mess.

Ewing has written, in just shy of 250 pages, one of the best superhero pastiches I've ever read. From his dry take on the old pulp heroes stories to his disturbingly sinister version of Marvel's flagship hero, this is not something I ever expected to find outside of an Alan Moore graphic novel. He's used prose to describe comics (already something tricky), done so with a great deal of rewarding satire, and, most importantly, written a bloody enjoyable book. Gods of Manhattan is a terrific, inescapable book - in which absolutely anything can happen and, quite often, does. 

Ewing's books make for strange roommates to Green's, but not uncomfortable ones. Quicksilver sips brandy while El Sombra shoots rum, but both of them throw a kickass house party. Similarly, both authors have an infectious sense of humor and a commitment to raw, unfettered joy that make Pax Britannia one of the best ongoing series today. This is a lunatic world where the imagination runs wild - where steam-powered squid co-exist with face-changing super-villains - and the reader can delight in it all.