Aug 31, 2012

Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

Many thanks to Professor Cayne Armand, who continues our run of guest reviews here at the blog, while I recover from the stress of finishing my dissertation and anticipate my oral defence on September 17 (the five year mission might be ending a year sooner!). You can check out Armand's science fiction serial at

I will begin this review by telling you that you should absolutely read this book. Trust me – with the sequel, this book adds a great deal of characterization that will only make reading the next book better. With that caveat, let us delve into the review of Ghosts of Manhattan. As you might guess, in my opinion, Ghosts of Manhattan is more of a prequel than a first in a series.

I enjoyed Ghosts of Manhattan well enough on its own. I will generally purchase a book if I find it interesting enough to read a second time – and I would buy Ghosts of Manhattan. I found it to be a great adventure and crime-procedural all rolled into one, with strong flavors of the 1920s period. As I read through the story I found myself comparing The Ghost to other vigilante/hero archetypes; The Shadow, Batman, the Phantom, and oddly enough, Flash Gordon.

I genuinely enjoyed the characters and the story that they moved in – even the villains. While a great crime procedural, I spent much of the book thinking that it isn’t intrinsically steampunk. It felt like Mr. Mann didn’t hit his stride with the steampunk aspects until the last third of the book, leading me to suspect that the steampunk was almost whitewashed on as an afterthought. As a bit of a spoiler for my next review, I can tell you that I was right to hope for more in the second novel of this series, and your willingness to read Ghosts of Manhattan will be rewarded.

I mentioned that the steampunk flavors felt whitewashed – let me elaborate. Within the first few pages we see The Ghost defeating some of the Roman’s mobsters, and during the course of battle are given our first taste of the steampunk aesthetic that Mr. Mann used in his world. The cars are powered by self-feeding coal hoppers, twin smokestacks rising at the rear of each and every car. Self-lighting cigarettes feature in the story – an interesting flavor of retrofuturism.

Our hero, the Ghost, has the ubiquitous boots, buckles, and goggles. He complements them with pneumatic flechettes and rocket boosters. Each of these steampunk-flavored pieces present an interesting premise, and I was hopeful for a great ride after reading the events of the bank robbery in the first chapter. Sadly, the story seemed to grind to a crawl, and aside from the appearance of the holotubes (holographic telephones), and self-lighting cigarettes, the steampunk aspects of the story faded into the background. I distinctly recall asking myself at page 33, “Isn’t this supposed to be a steampunk story?” The rich steampunk attributes that I had keyed myself up to anticipate were supplanted by a vivid world where I more expected to run into the cast of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” or “The Sting.” As the story progressed, I half expected the Roman to turn out to be Al Capone.

Not many pages after my doubts surfaced, I was soon given another morsel of steampunk, enough to draw me along, but my rhetorical question was far from banished and reappeared all throughout the story until I hit the last chapters. Between the action and the increased appearance of steampunk, I was well engrossed, and felt as though I were finally reading the novel I had anticipated.

My list of complaints, though few, would begin with foreshadowing. Allow me to preface that I don’t foreshadow easily – I didn’t expect the ending of “The Sixth Sense,” or “The Village,” for example. Throughout the story I felt as if the foreshadowing were ladled out rather than drizzled. It was so strong that the ending was not unexpected, nor the segue into the next novel; on the whole, much thicker than I would want in my normal reading.

Secondly, while it may seem a bit puritanical, I found it quite jarring that Mr. Mann would generally refrain from cursing throughout the novel, but would say f**k when referring to intercourse. To have such a dichotomy was both distracting and off-putting. Had he used more gritty language with his characters throughout, I wouldn’t likely have noticed.

Thirdly, the use of “fifty-dollar” words. There are some words in the English language, while useful and full of flavor, should still only be used once a page, and some, once in a novel. They are heavy, rare, and, like truffles in cooking, should be used sparingly. I recall reading a self-published novel where “victuals” was invariably used to refer to food. As a writer and an editor, let me tell you, this is a once-in-a-book word. In Mr. Mann’s case, the police zeppelins invariably moved “ponderously” in the “gloaming” night of New York – two words that add great clarity of image, but should not, in this author’s opinion, be used more than once in a story.

Finally, I feel as though the steampunk flavors inserted in the novel could just as easily be excised and we’d have a 1920s policier, just as interesting, and maybe a better story without the expectation of brass and steam. Were this a stand-alone story, I would argue that point more stridently. Having read both, I will say that the wedding of the two different setting flavors comes to fruition as Mr. Mann hits his stride in the second book, Ghosts of War.

Aug 10, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna

Guest Review by Avigayil Morris, getting us back on track with a look at other Holmes pastiches from Titan Books.

I consider myself a Sherlockian, having eagerly devoured the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes collection at a young age, with many feedings since. One of the more common mediums for Sherlock Holmes is movies and television. I have enjoyed interpretations of Sherlock Holmes by Basil Rathbone (late 30s to mid 40s), Jeremy Brett (mid 80s to mid 90s) and the most recent addition, Benedict Cumberbatch, in the BBC: Sherlock (ongoing). Thus, when Mike asked if I would be interested in reviewing Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna (Titan Books, 2010), I jumped at the chance.

What I failed to realize at the time was this book actually falls outside my jurisdiction when it comes to mystery stories. True, it is a detective story, but a more accurate description would classify this book as a historical fiction. While my knowledge of Sherlock Holmes and Watson may be sufficient, my knowledge of Jack the Ripper was pretty much non-existent. I chose, however, to read the book before my trip to Wikipedia for a debriefing.

As a historical fiction, Hanna's book excels. The twenty-five pages of 'footnotes' at the back add substance and background to the reading experience. While some of the original story is adapted to accommodate Holmes, the details are as close to the original as could possibly be expected. Some details like the human kidney that was originally mailed to Mr. Lusk was mailed to Holmes instead - but the fact it was a kidney mailed, and the spirit of the letter enclosed is preserved. Details such as names, dates, and locations are matched (for the most part) to the historical account of the murders. Gruesome details of the throat slits, puncture wounds, removal of internal organs, and the mutilations per woman are also retold with acute accuracy.

Additionally, Hanna’s work has plenty of political content. The monarchy and political leaders of the day, such as Lord Randolph and the Prince of Wales, match what was known of their personalities and attitudes from research. The back notes provide more details on the known history of the political figures mentioned.

The result of this strong adherence to the actual timeline, details, and events creates a grounded, believable story. The amalgamation of historical ‘truths’ within the Sherlockian world is executed well, though becomes tedious in some areas. We see this when the story is worked around an absence from England by Watson, and then by Holmes, for the Hound of The Baskervilles mystery. Other mysteries are also commonly referenced, though not directly. Hanna grounds the story with other well-known characters from Doyle’s stories: Wiggins, The Baker Street Irregulars, Ms Hudson and Mary.

Hanna's work overall is quite believable. Once you get past some blatant character errors (mentioned below), the actual world and story created feel authentic. By authentic I mean a story that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could have written, but perhaps never edited or finished. However, being written in the third person rather than through Watson detracts from this effect. If these are indeed Watson’s notes of a case he was not allowed to disclose until 100 years had past, why wasn’t the story written the way all of Watson’s stories are written: from his point of view?

Hanna's Watson is a marginally passable facsimile of the Doctor, with some personality quirks that were perhaps present but by no means prominent in Doyle's Watson. Hanna's Watson comes across as a bit of an ass, especially during his commentary on how the poor deserve their lot. He tends to challenge Holmes and authority figures more brashly, and has a temper issue. Though his loyalty is unquestionable and his compassion towards Holmes ever unmoving: we are presented with a version of Watson missing a portion of his big heart. Perhaps the story being written from a third party perspective lends itself to a more external view of Watson, uncoloured by his own opinion of himself.

Sherlock Holmes has adopted the missing chunk of Watson's heart as he shows great compassion beyond the usual capabilities of his famous cold methodical being. Holmes also seems to have developed a propensity for talking to almost anyone, certainly a habit that Doyle's Holmes never would have suffered. Hanna excuses this behaviour by using phrases such as 'Holmes was uncommonly chatty.' This would be more meaningful should it have been uncommon throughout the story. Also, Holmes deviates from his usual deductive methods and creates theories without facts – a moment that nearly gave me heart palpitations. Unfortunately, our famous detective is slow to follow up on evidence he knows is solid, and arguably could be blamed for the deaths of all but the first victim due to his possession of valuable knowledge he fails to act on.

Overall, the speech and mannerisms of both primary characters is spot on, and the interactions between them gave me a nostalgic feeling that is a good replica of Doyle's work.

Now for the meat – feel free to skip down to here if the above bores you to death. The story has two blatant errors, which I think are its downfall from a technical perspective.
  1. Sherlock Holmes knows who the perpetrator is with very solid evidence by page 71-72, after the first murder. He fails to act on it or disclose the evidence till much later in the book... several murders later. With this evidence he could very well have prevented the future murders. In my mind, blood is certainly on his hands. This issue is never approached nor dealt with.
  2. The Whitechapel Horrors is 440 pgs long. However, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt who Jack the Ripper was on pg. 250. The connection was so incredibly blatant that Doyle’s Watson could have made the connection (and we know how daft he was). This is shameful for a detective story! When you give such valuable information away just over half way through the book, do you really expect people to finish reading? Hanna tries fumbling around with false leads in the latter half of the book that make Holmes look stupid, but the answer is blatant.
The worst part is the story takes a turn at the end, which is completely insane. Hanna via Holmes dismisses all the evidence collected throughout the story and suddenly doesn’t know whom Jack the Ripper is at all. The evidence that blatantly pointed towards a specific individual Holmes says is meaningless and that they just couldn’t have had the mind to do it. The end is outrageous and sure to boil your blood if you are a Sherlockian.

Even with the glaring errors, the book was an enjoyable read. I really liked the combination of actual history with one of my favourite fictional characters. If you enjoy Doyle's work, political fiction, or historical fiction I encourage you to take a gander and read Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors. However, if you like a good mystery that leaves you guessing till the very end, you are out of luck.

Aug 6, 2012

The Grey Griffins by Derek Benz and J. S. Lewis

Guest Post by Aaron Sikes, Managing Editor, Web for Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders

In The Brimstone Key – The Clockwork Chronicles: Book 1, authors Derek Benz and J. S. Lewis team up for a fourth story about the Grey Griffins. I have not read the previous three installments in the Griffins’ storyline, though it is clear that Benz and Lewis have a vibrant imagination and are enchanted by the world they’ve created together. The Brimstone Key is packed full of creative spectacles, wondrous inventions, and some clever use of contemporary trends. The target audience, if not all readers, will no doubt recognize the parallel between Round Table, a card game the Griffins play, and collectible card games like Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering.

All in all, the story promises an exciting ride through a magical world with intrigue and action at every turn. Unfortunately, and for some truly painful reasons, The Brimstone Key completely fails to live up to its promise.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the story is that there are no problems in it. If you want people to feel excited about a story, it helps if the characters in the story are faced with situations that are pressing, important, compelling, or dire. Good storytelling requires characters who encounter difficulties and overcome or at least engage with those difficulties, hopefully surviving and learning something about themselves in the process. Whether we’re talking about protagonists, antagonists, or the supporting cast, a good story will lead each and every character through an arc from beginning to end. A really good story will leave all remaining characters with options for the future, and not simply because that’s a necessary step to guiding readers towards a sequel. A good story will also be well edited, meaning the authors will be told both the good and the bad about their effort. And if something falls short or flat, the editor is there to keep the authors on track. The Brimstone Key doesn’t meet any of the above criteria.

The story revolves around a team of four friends called the Grey Griffins who discover a mysterious package in their secret fort, called “The Aerie” (three separate buildings connected by walkways, and replete with air-conditioning, refrigerators packed with food, various bits of electronic gadgetry, and a host of other conveniences that amount to something akin to a Bat Cave for tween superheroes). With that image in mind, how can readers be expected to believe the Griffins will have a problem with transferring to a new school? (That fact is laid down like a bit of a gauntlet in the opening pages).

From there, we get to watch the Griffins open the mysterious package, follow a small clockwork insect, and go on a rapid-fire adventure through a mystical place they reach by a portal. In this hidden place, the Griffins learn of a figure known as The Clockwork King, who resides inside a deck of Round Table cards, along with all of his menacing clockwork inventions. The deck is mysterious and foreboding as none of the Griffins have heard of it before, not even Max, the leader of the group and most accomplished Round Table player (he beat a Grandmaster or something in a previous story). When they return, the adventure starts with Natalia, the female member of the Griffins, conducting research (her specialty) to uncover the truth about the strange deck of cards and the even stranger clockwork monsters.

The rest of the story proceeds much like the opening action sequence. Rapid-fire scenes are presented as individual chapters so that the pace never truly lets up, but not because any particular scene demands we keep reading to find out what happens next. It’s simply a function of a book that is written with scenes that last anywhere from three to five pages on average, and in which the Griffins, if they encounter any problems at all, easily survive to take on whatever is next presented to them as a challenge. Only for these kids, there doesn’t seem to be anything resembling a challenge in their world, magical or otherwise.

In every single instance of action and supposed peril, the Griffins come out without a scratch by using their special abilities, regardless of what kind of stress they might be under (laser fire from giant clockwork monsters, for example). And, as I said above, the book would have benefited from some quality editing. In one scene, Max is described as swallowing sewage into his lungs and then, an instant later, gasping as he reaches for an object at his feet (i.e., down in the sewage he’s swimming through and supposedly drowning on, unless they snuck something in about his lungs being magical).

In situations where the Griffins can’t make it out on their own, which are few and very far between, they’re saved by the help of the many adults who orbit their activities and, in one case, always seem to be nearby just when things get tough. Coincidental appearances are effective plot devices, but not when they are used to solve a problem so the story can get back to descriptions about the wild inventions or nifty history surrounding this mysterious school the Griffins attend.

It’s called Iron Bridge, by the way, and had previously been destroyed for some reason. We find out, eventually, why it was destroyed, and that revelation, like every other one in the book, is entirely anti-climactic. This and every above complaint is rooted in my very first critique. Good storytelling requires characters, and The Brimstone Key doesn’t really have any. It has names, it has abilities, and it has vague descriptions (if any are given, and, for the record, it is not acceptable to assume readers have a familiarity with your previous books and therefore do not need to be told what your characters look like). To their credit, the authors tell us on the inside fold of the jacket that Max is the leader, Natalia is the brains, Ernie is the changeling, and Harley is the muscle. Then they leave out that Harley is also a technical wizard capable of reprogramming a hostile clockwork monster during a firefight, without being injured, and thereby shutting down an entire army of clockwork monsters that attack the Griffins. But there’s a short battle scene in the book that fills that in for us.

So there are no real characters, but surely there is dialogue to fill out the characters, give us a sense of who they are, their motivations, their fears, their hopes? Surely? No. No, there isn’t. There are passages of text presented between quotes, but it isn’t dialogue. It isn’t dialogue because every single character in the book speaks the same language, uses the same diction, and is apparently familiar with the exact same turns of phrase employed by every other character. Not every writer is a dialogue wizard, but a careful editor would have pinpointed this deficiency immediately.

If there was something compelling about the Grey Griffins latest adventure, it would be easier to lend a hopeful tone to this review. But that’s just the problem with the book. There isn’t anything compelling at all about a story of four young people who possess super powers and rare artifacts that allow them to defeat nearly any foe they encounter. And when they encounter a foe they can’t overcome? Oh, well, some adult will show up and help out at just the right moment. What is most painful about this review is that the authors are so clearly invested in the world they’ve created and in the descriptions and inventions they get to write and write about. They’ve also made a considerable effort at standing on the shoulders of giants by placing their protagonists in a special school housed in a hidden location in the space between the real world and the Shadowlands, and which is reached by a special magical train.

Yes, Benz and Lewis clearly draw inspiration from that young wizard’s story, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there is everything wrong with assuming it’s okay to take flat characters across story arcs that are one-dimensional. One dimension equals a single point on the map. In other words, no movement. Nothing happening. Sadly, the world Benz and Lewis have created, which could have been so much more, comes off as just Hogwarts with gears on.
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