Empire State by Adam Christopher
Published by Angry Robot Books, January 2012. Review Copy received.
Review by Mark Yon
The art-deco style cover gives you a clue about this one. Here is a tale set initially in a 1920/30’s style New York, though not the New York City, but a place called Empire State. (Although the real New York City does appear, later.)
We have murder and gunshots in dark city streets, where it is always raining, detectives under streetlamps wrestling silently with their broody thoughts and dubious morals. We have Superheroes entwined with Gangsters. And with illicit booze, gang fights, car chases, airships, and robots, it’s a great mash-up of pulp fiction, film-noir and even a little SF ‘sensawunda’. It’s a book with the detective feel of Chandler and Marlowe living in the strange urban landscapes of China Mieville, mixed in with a good dose of Paul McAuley quantum universe SF. And above all, it’s a pulp style superhero book, one that is reminiscent of George RR Martin’s Wild Cards series, or my recent read of Paul Malmont.
The sense of place is strong in this one. I was impressed by the grimy sidewalks, the speakeasies, the general sense that all is not well in this urban metropolis.
The characterisation is pretty good too. Though our main hero, Rad Bradley, fits all the usual clichés of ‘downtrodden detective’, Rad has a bit more depth than I’d expected. Whilst being the tortured hero, it’s also clear that he has issues, though these are not overplayed. He wants to do the right thing and clearly has good intentions, though the city is wearing him down.
Rad is given the case of finding a young woman (Sam Saturn) who has gone missing. In the finest tradition of film noir, there’s more to this than you (or Rad) expect, and we soon find ourselves enmeshed in a plot of secrecy and betrayal, connected to the seemingly never-ending ‘Wartime’ and the under-construction Empire State building.
There’s a great range of secondary characters to fill out the world. We meet Rad’s best friend newspaper reporter Kane Fortuna, who eventually becomes not-what-we-expect. Kane introduces Rad to Captain Carson and his enigmatic robotic sidekick Byron, who remind me of the old pulp adventurers such as Doc Savage and Alain Quartermain. At the same time, but in alternate storylines, we meet Rex, a gangster, and a Ku-Klux-Clan-like prophet, The Pastor of Lost Souls, whose secret meetings suggest that a time of revolution may soon be at hand.
In such tales where the writer is juggling so many aspects, there’s a great risk it isn’t going to work, that there’s too many references to the past and not enough originality, and that ‘the grand idea’ in the end peters out to nothing. There was an issue here in that the set up in the initial pages is quite impressive, although by the middle the novel suffers by a colossal slow-down of pace, with lots of running around between low-key locations which is a tad repetitive. In order to maintain the air of mystery before the big reveal midway through, we don’t see a lot of Empire State and so momentum is lost. Some things are kept deliberately enigmatic: the war between Empire State and ‘The Enemy’, the fact that most residents of the Empire State cannot remember much of their history, but seem to exist mainly in the now.
In the middle there are major revelations to explain these strange characteristics, mainly in an info-dump format when Rad has the problem/s revealed.
[MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS!!!]
The key concept of the story is that Empire State and New York City are in parallel universes, the Origin and the Pocket, but connected through a rift, the Fissure. Opposing factions on both sides are trying to keep the Fissure open or close it, but time is running out as the Origin universe (New York) is reabsorbing the Pocket universe (Empire State). Some of our characters have crossed over between the two to do this whilst others have doppelgangers co-existing in the opposing universes.
[END OF MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS!!!]
The remainder of the novel is spent dealing with the repercussions of these revelations and the tale becomes a little fractured towards the climax, jumping between the key characters and travelling between the places where they are.
By the end, it’s all resolved. The problem is solved, things settle into a new reality, although again there’s a lot of ‘here’s why this happened’ dialogue in order to do this.
Despite the drop-off in the middle of the book, and the ending not quite holding up to its ambitious premise, I’m pleased I persevered with this one. It’s a very impressive debut. The sequel, Seven Wonders, is due out from Angry Robot Books in September 2012. Based on what I’ve read here, it’s going to be brilliant.
Some interesting little extras at the back of the book: there’s an interview with Adam about the writing of the novel, which is quite enlightening. There’s also a listening list of music that inspired the author whilst writing the novel, which includes sources as diverse as The Cure and Hans Zimmer’s Inception soundtrack.
Most interestingly of all, there is information about Worldbuilder, a computer website that allows the reader to put up web designs, fan art, comic art, audio, or anything appropriate to the world Adam has created, under a Creative Commons licence. A great idea, in my opinion.
Mark Yon, January 2012