Empire State by Adam Christopher
The Empire State is the other New York
It’s a parallel-universe, Prohibition-era world of mooks and shamuses that is a twisted magic mirror to our own bustling Big Apple. It’s a city where sinister characters lurk around every corner, while the great superheroes who once kept the streets safe have fallen into deadly rivalries and feuds. Not that its colorful residents know anything about real New York…until detective Rad Bradley makes a discovery that will change the lives of all its inhabitants.
There is a pretty good chance that if you are a fan of genre fiction you are already well aware of Empire State. You may even be wondering why I didn’t review it way back in January when it was first released. There were a couple of reasons if I’m honest. Firstly, there were so many reviews floating about, I was concerned that rather than form my own opinion I’d just end up regurgitating someone else’s. Secondly, the fact is that I’m a one-man outfit and I can’t fit in every single book I’d like to read, never mind review. (If I had the time I would pretty much try and read everything). Over the following months, I kept spotting the paperback on my ever-growing ‘to read’ pile and I realised that I was still extremely keen to try out this debut. At the beginning of this week, in a fit of pique, I decided that six months was more than enough of a wait. So without further ado and dispensing with anymore of this apologetic waffle, on with the show…
In a story of sprinkled with doppelgangers, parallel realities and pocket universes it’s the characters that really capture the readers imagination. Rad Bradley, a slightly down-at-heel detective, is tasked with what initially appears as a straightforward case, finding a missing woman. It quickly becomes evident that nothing in the Empire State is ever that simple and Rad gets a whole lot more than he bargained for. Rad’s air of world-weariness makes him a great protagonist. He has worked the city streets for as long as he can remember and has a dogged tenacity and determination that are infectious. Rad’s has a somewhat cynical point of view and this makes for a great counterpoint to all the wonders that are on display.
During the course of his investigation Rad meets a host of colourful characters, each one fitting perfectly into the unfolding plot. The enigmatic Captain Carson and his New York equivalent, who I’ll leave un-named to avoid unnecessary spoileriness, are two of my favourites. They both tread the fine line between hero and villain. The ever-sneaky Mr. Christopher invokes the rules of film-noir and keeps the reader guessing about their true intentions right up to the wire. I guess it wouldn’t be a mystery without some proper intrigue now would it?
Another couple of characters that feature highly are two superheroes (or possibly villains?), called the Skyguard, and the Science Pirate. Their epic rivalry and constant dueling have a direct link to the very heart of Empire State. After finishing the novel I have to admit that I’d love to learn more about them both, there is a back story that the author only briefly alludes to. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to know more.
What I wasn’t prepared for was a host of truly memorable moments that ended up totally catching me off guard.
In one moment, Adam Christopher knows how to amuse with the slightly surreal.
Hell, one time everyone with the surname ‘Johnson’ disappeared, then came back the next day. They say it was the Science Pirate and the Skyguard fighting.
And then tug at the old heartstrings the next.
The Empire State was cold, grey, fogbound and as quiet as the grave. Rad realized now that his city, his home, was merely a shadow of New York, a bad knock off, a worn-out second-hand copy. Rad felt odd. His chest was tight, not just from the breathing. His mask goggles steamed more, and he recognized the feeling. Sadness.
If I asked you to name the most famous city in the world there is a pretty good chance that New York would be at the top the list. It strikes me that there aren’t many other places that are quite as iconic. Taking such a well-known location and then creating an ever so slightly skewed version of it is great deal of fun. Everything is familiar and unrecognizable all at once.
Empire State is the rarest of things – a great genre novel that weaves together a multitude of different ideas and incorporates them into a seamless narrative. The story elements that the author plays with all riff off one another like a free form jazz tune, and create a wonderfully eclectic adventure. I found myself comparing elements of the novel to many other existing genre comics, books and films – The Wizard of Oz, Dark City, Watchmen, The Philadelphia Experiment and the rather splendid short story from George R R Martin’s first Wildcard anthology Thirty Minutes Over Broadway by Howard Waldrop. All these pop culture references sprung to mind at various points in the plot. That’s not to say that Empire State is derivative, quite the reverse in fact. Christopher’s debut expertly blends together the old school detective conventions with some classic golden age science fiction to create something new and utterly readable.
Empire State is published by Angry Robot and is available now. I’m willing to concede that I’m a bit late to this to this particular party but I urge you, if you haven’t already, to check it out. Highly recommended.