Review of Empire State by

Book cover for Empire State

Empire State is a frenetic concoction of noir mystery, Prohibition-era gangster-style criminal conspiracy, and Golden Age superhero fiction. Reading it is like sitting in a bare room, concrete walls and a single steel table with an uncomfortable chair, as the clock above the door ticks steadily towards 3 AM. It’s minimalist and rough, sometimes surreal and always uncomfortable. Just when I thought I had it figured out, Adam Christopher changes gears and leaves me in the dust. I like that I was always kept guessing in that sense. However, Empire State’s characters and story also leave much to be desired. I’m not sure how great a book this is, but it’s definitely a very interesting experience.

Without spoiling too much of the story, Empire State is basically about the relationship between two alternate universes. The first universe is like ours, except that New York in the 1930s came with two superheroes attached. The second universe, the Empire State, is itself a distilled, distorted version of the first, even more different from our own universe. (And don’t worry, Empire State obeys the airship law of alternate universes (TVTropes), though it’s somewhat justified here because of the time period.)

Although mysteries were my first novel love, way back in grades five and six, I never made it as far as the noir and pulp traditions—I stayed safely in the posh land of Poirot and Holmes and their ilk. Empire State features a private detective named Ray Bradley. He’s exactly what one would expect: short on funds, caught in the middle of an interminable separation/divorce with a woman he might still kind of love, not quite an alcoholic but well on his way to being dependent on the bottle, and possessed of slightly too much in the way of integrity to make his way in this broken town. Unlike his counterpart from New York, Rex, I found Ray a rather tolerable and sometimes even entertaining protagonist.

Christopher aptly bridges the noir genre with speculative fiction. Though I’m not really qualified to judge the noir aspects of Empire State, I think that in general this is a very natural union. The science fictional parts of Empire State are almost but not quite Lovecraftian in atmosphere, almost but not quite steampunk in implementation. Both of these styles are compatible with the dreary, gritty atmosphere of the noir realm, that sense that the world is a tough, unyielding place of grey skies and unceasing rain.

On top of this union Christopher adds the superhero element. The Skyguard and Science Pirate were once a crimefighting duo in 1930s New York. Then they became bitter enemies for reasons no one knows. Their final, climactic fight is related directly to the origins of the Empire State, and the identities of the Skyguard and Science Pirate play a crucial part in the resolution of the book. These heroes are of the technological, Batman kind rather than the alien or mutant kind: their powers are marvels of science and engineering, not natural gifts. This all fits with the setting Christopher has created. Some other reviews have questioned whether these superheroes are necessary (or, along similar lines, lamented the way their stories are sidelined and shoehorned into the rest of the plot). I can see the reasoning behind those critiques, but I personally didn’t mind the superhero part of the plot. Could Christopher have achieved the same ends with different means? Perhaps. But the inclusion of superheroes doesn’t hurt anything.

Instead, I am more disappointed in the characterization—of the superheroes, yes, but also the rest of the characters. Most of the time, the narration follows Rad, occasionally jumping to a different character. Sometimes their actions come out of the blue—Carson’s twist during the climax is a good example of this. With other characters, like the anomalous Katherine Kopek or the Science Pirate, are complete ciphers without so much as a motivation call their own. Christopher has an interesting in-universe excuse related to the paradoxical nature of the Empire State’s existence. Even so, as someone who reads books primarily for the juicy drama of relationships between real human beings, this leaves much to be desired.

I still liked Empire State, mostly because I love what Christopher attempts to do with these universes he has created. I’m not just talking about worldbuilding (a term about which I feel increasingly ambivalent these days), though I can see why Angry Robot decided to use it as the basis for the WorldBuilder project. I’m referring to the way Christopher has intentionally taken these disparate but very compatible genres of noir, superhero, and alternate universe and fused them into a recognizable, workable story. The plot is sometimes lackadaisical in its pacing, and the characters irritate me, but the framework on which these two elements hang is itself very intriguing.

But better a novelist should take a stab at something clever and original and fascinating than play it safe. Empire State doesn’t succeed in a marvellous fashion—but its very attempt, and the creativity behind it, deserves high marks. It’s a story that should appeal to a broad audience—fans of noir mysteries or alternate universe shenanigans will probably find this a must-read.

Engagement

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