I waited a long time to read Empire State, the debut novel of Adam Christopher, which is a blend of crime noir and super heroes. A fight between two super heroes creates a duplicate of New York in a pocket dimension, and the two cities have to fight for their survival. When I first read the blurb I thought it sounded like a great idea mixing two such different genres. Not perhaps the easiest thing to do though. When a sample chapter was released to the public any worries I might have had were eased. Apparently, a private detective, alternative versions of New York, and super heroes mix well together. Both publisher and author are clearly very committed to the book, so committed they even announced project WorldBuilder. Anyone who is interested is allowed to use the world to create art, or write content set in Empire State. Thank you Angry Robot Books for providing me with a review copy of Empire State.
It all begins in New York, where Rex, a small time criminal, is the witness to a fight between two super heroes, The Science Pirate and The Skyguard. The two former friends are battling it out over the city’s skyline to everyone's delight. A couple of BOOM, POW and THWACKS later it is all over. The victor, to the surprise of the audience, de-masks and after some arguing with the police leaves with roaring rocket boots. Later, Rex can't believe his luck when he sees a person which is the spitting image of the de-masked hero. This is his chance to gain wealth and fame. Rex is a big guy, and without the power suit he is confident he can overpower the rogue hero to gain a favor with the chief of police and maybe even the mayor, or even get his hands on that suit.
In Empire State, Rad, a private detective, is being questioned by two men wearing gas-masks in an alley. To Rad the whole thing is very odd. They are asking him what nineteen fifty means to him, but he can't imagine what answer they are looking for. An address maybe? Why would two professionals beat him up only two ask him such a nonsense question? Then the impossible happens, The Skyguard arrives and opens a can of whoop-ass on the two goons. It gets even weirder when the Skyguard leaves him with cryptic remark, "They've left the city. They'll be back. Be vigilant.". It's nice being saved, but the Skyguard was executed not long ago...
As the man moved his head to look first at his two defeated opponents, and then at Rad, the weak light reflected off an angled helmet, a sharp-fronted slatted visor covering the entire face and continuing back and up past the ears. The edges stood nearly a foot away from the top of the man’s head, and were fluted into sharp points, like the flight feathers of a bird’s wings. Two eyes glowed white in the dark, as though lit from within the weird helmet.
Quite a lot has happened, and we are only a couple of chapters into Empire State. I'm already impressed by the world building and the atmosphere Adam Christopher has created. Empire State - the city, not the book - is a reflection of New York, but a reflection cast from a seriously messed up mirror. It is dark, rainy, and surrounded by mysterious mists, and the unknown. You can almost feel the cold and the damp from the mist snaking it's way through the streets. The people who live there are barely aware of the passing of time, and only seem concerned with getting through the day, ever fearful of the Commissioners and their iron fisted rule. Adam Christopher brings it all to life with fastidiously written descriptions and prose.
The world building is what excited me the most with Empire State, but Adam Christopher has also done a good job with the plot itself. It is not very often I read a book which just keeps on surprising me, but this is the case with Empire State. It's a really nice situation to be in for a reader, and an excellent reason to keep turning those pages.
It is however a complicated plot, where the characters themselves are not sure what they should be doing, or they can trust. Rad, in particular suffers from this and seems to just do whatever the last person told him to do. It's a shame Rad comes across so passive. I much prefer the protagonist to be active, more in control of his destiny. The interaction between characters is done well with everyone staying in character with their actions and dialogue. There is also a lot of witty banter, especially from Rad, which is what I like to see in a private detective.
Apart from Rad being a private detective, and receiving a case from a lady in his dive of an office, it's not really a hard boiled crime novel. The depression and cinematic feeling is there, but to me it was more of a science fiction, thriller. The same goes for the super hero element, they are there, but more as a side show than the core of the story. I am probably guilty of selective reading of the marketing material, but wanted to make it clear.
I'm impressed with Empire State, and how Adam Christopher has conjured a surreal and dreamlike version of New York City. It's a good science fiction thriller worth reading by anyone, especially if you like the noir-feel and authors who are not afraid of pushing boundaries, and testing new ideas. I’m sure we will see a lot of good books by Adam Christopher in the future, and I will certainly be reading them. His next novel, Seven Wonders, will be released in late 2012.
Empire State weighs in at 416 pages and is published by Angry Robot Books.