28th Apr2015

‘Ghosts of War’ Review (Titan Books)

by Phil Wheat

Written by George Mann | Published by Titan Books | Format: Paperback, 352pp

George Mann’s pulp thriller does a lot to recapture the thrill of the early days of the genre. But in the Age of the Superhero, is that enough?

ghosts-of-war

We live in the Age of the Superhero in media. That’s beyond doubt – we have superheroes on film, our TV screen, in our games. How long it lasts is academic, but at the moment we’re at peak superhero, with every type available to us in one form or another. It’s quite wonderful, but unfortunately there must be losers and though it doesn’t mean it’s a terrible book, I do feel that Ghosts of War is diminished by its timing.

The second in an ongoing series, Ghosts of War is set in an alternate history, where World War One was ended by the British deploying technological marvels that ensured the British Empire never ended, leaving an uneasy peace between them and the US. Thrown into this is Gabriel Cross, whose alter ego The Ghost protects New York from unusual threats. Stumbling across an attempt to ignite a war between both countries, Gabriel must deal with cabals, spies, inter-dimensional beasts and mad scientists with leprosy.

From that, it sounds like it’s a quite fun and it is. It leans heavily on early pulp ideas of just throwing anything into the mix for the hell of it, but also has more depth than that. George Mann has spent a lot of time figuring what a world like this would be, littered with broken survivors of a war that still hangs over everything in society. Gabriel himself is one of them, his duelling personalities of playboy and psychopath being the big divide and conflict of the book.

If that sounds a little familiar, then it’s because it is. Superhero wise, we’re big on characters that were created during the peak pulp era of the 30′s and 40′s at the moment. Ghosts of War and the character of Gabriel are reliant on shared tropes from characters such as Batman, The Shadow and Doc Savage – he lives a life as New York playboy by day and a tortured vigilante by night, with his own gadgets, contacts within the a corrupt Police force and a femme fatale who can hold her own but is as equally flawed as the hero. Though they all combine in memorable ways, as a comics reader they’re all too familiar tropes to me.

One difference between his counterparts though, is that Gabriel gets hurt – a lot. Mann’s writing is particularly good at invoking the ‘kill or be killed’ nature of classic pulp fight scenes and often has our protagonists come off worse, which adds tension to the events.

He can dish it out as well, with nary the compunction about killing that his caped descendants have – Mann hammers home the feeling that Gabriel is a soldier first and a crime fighter second, resorting to using his fists when a lead runs dry. It’s this method that led the book to feeling a bit samey at times as Gabriel repeats himself several times, which left the book feeling like it was spinning it’s wheels slightly until it was time for the end of book showdown.

In the end, I think it was my own familiarity with the tropes of the genre gave me a poorer opinion of the book. It’s certainly not Mann’s fault as his writing in exactly what it needs to be for this type of novel. Were a younger reader or someone not as well versed in the conventions, I can imagine them having a great time with the book.

But for me, there needs to be something a little new added to the equation – it’s no longer enough to ape the past. I’ve had enough of that already.

Ghosts of War is available now from Titan Books.

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