Ghosts of Karnak by George Mann

So, this is the third book in a series and I didn’t realize that until I opened the book and saw it on the “other books by this author” page. It wasn’t marked anywhere on the cover, or else I definitely wouldn’t have bought it, given that I haven’t read the first two books. This book sat on my shelf for months, and I figured I might never read it, until last week when I really got the urge to read something pulpy. I picked it up and gave it a shot, thinking that if it was incoherent without the first two books, I’d put it down. Turns out, even though the series is sequential, this book was not at all dependent on knowledge of the first two.

Ghosts of Karnak is, specifically, the third book in the Ghost series by George Mann. About five pages in, I got the distinct impression that Mann had asked for permission to write a series of Batman novels, been refused, and said, “Fuck you, I’ll make my own Batman!” It actually works out very well. It seems like this allowed Mann to keep his own intellectual property and introduce new elements that might be vetoed by DC, while still being able to rely on a shared cultural knowledge of Batman tropes. I’ve always been an advocate of this method – if you file some serial numbers off of good fanfiction, you basically end up with an original property, which gives you more freedom in terms of publication and copyrights.

In this series, Gabriel Cross is a wealthy socialite who returned traumatized from fighting in the Great War – oh, sorry, did I mention that this also takes place in 1920s New York? It does. And of course the way that he deals with this trauma is by dressing up as The Ghost and fighting crime, as one does. His allies include Felix Donovan, a detective for the NYPD, and his partner, Mullins; Astrid, a modern occultist; and Ginny Gray, an intelligent and independent woman who has mysteriously failed to return from a trip to Egypt. The Egyptian elements of this book’s synopsis are actually why I bought it in the first place – I love pulp and I love ancient Egypt, so this was a solid pick for me.

I’ve mentioned this book being pulp a few times, and of course, it is a modern book – published in 2016. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that it’s written in the style of pulp, but I think you’ll still get my meaning. For me, it’s always been hard to put my finger on what I like about pulp fiction (…not the movie, though), things done in the style of penny dreadfuls and dime novels. I think it’s the fact that pulp is not and never was intended as high art, and it doesn’t pretend to be. Pulp magazines started as affordable entertainment for the working classes. They’re lurid and dramatic and often larger than life. That, to me, is the key. Pulp doesn’t bother trying to tell small stories.

As is fitting for this type of story, Ghosts of Karnak sees the entirety of Manhattan in danger from a revivalist cult of Thoth, which wishes to destroy the “City of Greed”. When Ginny Gray travels to Egypt, she falls in with the charming French “archaeologist” (read: graverobber) Jacques Amaury. When she fails to meet Gabriel at the appointed time on her return to New York, he is suspicious. Of course, this all coincides with the grand opening of a fabulous Ancient Egypt exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the appearance of several Egyptian apparitions around the city. And it could hardly be a noir crime novel without an appearance from the resident mob boss, the Reaper, coming in at just the right moment to make a dangerous offer.

Given that I came into the series on book three, the characterization and backstory given in this book is solid. Like I said, I felt no confusion or lack of understanding for not having read the first two – allusions are made to the events of previous books, but enough information is given to make sure you’re following along. I actually really liked all of the main characters, which is not particularly common for me, especially in books with male authors. I don’t know how much of that is because of the writing of this book or because of my familiarity with the archetypes they’re built on, but I’m okay with that.

I particularly liked Ginny and Astrid. While Ginny is the one they spend most of the book trying to rescue, you never get the impression that she’s a damsel in distress. She’s intelligent and alert and intrepid – not many young women in the 1920s would be going off to Egypt on their own for an adventure. She manages to quell the spirit of Sekhmet on her own, while retaining it as a part of herself, and I love that – I can’t wait to see how that comes in handy in future books. And Astrid, the modern-day witch and sharpshooter, is just delightful. Her knowledge of the occult comes in handy quite a few times here, as does her down-to-earth advice to Gabriel.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been rather tired of steampunk for uh… years now. This book does have some steampunk elements to it – Gabriel’s technology as the Ghost, the Reaper’s Enforcers, etc. But it’s either so minimal that it doesn’t bother me, or I’m finally overcoming my mental block about steampunk. It really wasn’t so significant as to be distracting, and trust me, I would’ve noticed. The focus here is on the plot and the characters, not the technology or the world around it.

I really enjoyed this book and I’m definitely going to pick up the first two books (Ghosts of Manhattan and Ghosts of War), as well as the next book (Ghosts of Empire) when it comes out later this year. I could always use more pulp in my life, and I can definitely use more Batman takes that don’t piss me off.

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