Empire State by Adam Christopher: An engaging mix of Noir/Superhero/Pulpy Sci-fi(?)
I know am late to this rocking party that’s got Adam Christopher right in the center – what with a couple of his novels getting nominated for the biggies recently and his hotly anticipated space-horror(?) novel Burning Dark soon to be released by angry robot this year. So as soon as I got the ARC for burning dark, I went and bought his debut, Empire State to dig through the media-generated hype around the breathlessly positive buzz that this “stunning mash-up of trending cultural touchstones” was generating – A pulpy sci-fi cooler by juxtaposing it against a crime/noir thriller not to forget the superheroes? Cool huh!
So –Empire State is set in two worlds. New York during the times of prohibition and another bleaker paler washed out version of New York, called Empire State that exists in vacuum. And most of the story is viewed from the POV of Rad Bradley, a forty-something, down on his luck private investigator who is uncovering the mysteries behind a sordid murder of a young woman in the dark back alleys of Empire State. Harking back a few steps, we start the story with Rex, a bootlegger in prohibition NY-city while trying to escape cops and other goons, gets in the middle of a Superhero fight. Skyguard and Science Pirate (full points for cool names, huh?) once-best friends and sworn protectors of the city are now arch-rivals and are slugging it out in the sky. But the fight leads them to burrow deep down into the earth – creating a crater in the middle of NY and opening the gateways to a parallel universe – the Empire State.
I wouldn’t spoil the surprise elements for you by expounding the details of the rest of the story – but after this start, we switch tracks to Rad who mostly spends time drinking ‘moonshine’ from a cup at Jerry’s, keeps a dirty front office for his day job, yearns for good coffee and wears a white fedora, shooting the breeze with his best friend, Kane – star reporter of the local newspaper at Empire State. Till the day that a rich high-class lady drops by his office to give his first good case in ages. To track down her missing partner. The case takes a bizarre turn as Rad discovers her partner’s dead body in a back-alley dump and gets mired into a conspiracy that threatens his world.
Adam writes engagingly well and we’re soon sucked into the bleak, pale world of the Empire State where the fog never clears and citizens quake in fear for the lock-down that the mysterious “commissioner” has imposed on the city. Beyond the naval ports where the “ironclad” ships sets sail to fight the “Enemy”, reality loses its sharp edges. For we don’t know what’s beyond that roiling cover of fog. Adam’s prose effectively conveys the bleakness of the situation that has seeped into the lives of people within Empire State – the shadowy back alleys, Jerry’s - the illegal bar where Rad drowns out his miserable existence in colorless liquor he calls moonshine and the ration on food – all of this is well captured creating that whole atmosphere of hopelessness, accentuating the “lost” feeling with imminent war looming over their heads.
Rad is a lovable main character. A tough guy who punches his way out of trouble with a keen sense of deduction but clearly out of his depths when it comes to the scale of problems that threaten not his own existence but that of the city he loves. The superheroes, Science Pirate and Skyguard frankly fizzled out for me. Captain Carson and his robot manservant Bryan made for interesting side characters and probably the dark humour would keep you smiling in the face of this impending pall of gloom.
Where the novel fails for me is the pulpy sci-fi part. Perhaps Adam didn’t want to get into the nuances of trying to explain the geo-physics and the impossibility of his near-cool concept of this alternate reality existing alongside with real NY. The narrative builds up the tension to a knife-edge where the co-existence of both the worlds come into question and then the last few gasping breathless chapters kind of cobbles together a muddled solution – with a lot of spatting and fizzing and electric blue lights – which hazes out any logical explanation to the whole concept.
So my verdict: With a lot of cool things thrown into this hot stew – robot blimps, private detectives, superheroes, alternate reality, murder mystery and science fictional devices (notice I say devices and not a plot itself J ) Empire State is packed end to end with gooey goodness. The kind you will love and slurp on.
A good mashup of several cool elements penned in an engaging prose that keeps you invested in the fate of this bleak world, Empire State – this debut is a bold announcement of an author who doesn't hesitate to venture into the unknown and signals good things for the future of the genre! Kudos to Angry Robot books.