The Empire State is the other New York. A parallel-universe, Prohibition-era world of mooks and shamuses that is the twisted magic mirror to our bustling Big Apple, a place where sinister characters lurk around every corner while the great superheroes that once kept the streets safe have fallen into dysfunctional rivalries and feuds. Not that its colourful residents know anything about the real New York… until detective Rad Bradley makes a discovery that will change the lives of all its inhabitants.
Adam Christopher takes on a broad range of influences and styles and merges them in this impressive and stylish debut. A self-confessed comics lover, he fuses superhero figures, parallel universes, steampunk robots and Chandleresque gumshoes in an intriguing mystery that builds and builds.
Christopher’s strengths certainly lie in managing to convincingly combine genres in a natural way. Make no mistake, the main thrust of the plot is the detective story – the steampunky robots, airships and parallel universes only arise as complications of that. And it’s a pretty good mystery as it stands.
Several seemingly unconnected stories intertwine and overlap, reflecting New York’s disjointed nature, and perhaps reflecting the crack in reality connecting the Empire State to New York. Within this playground, we are introduced to Rad Bradley, a down on his luck gumshoe, given a break by a distraught woman looking for her lover. Investigating this case takes Bradley on a rollercoaster ride that barely lets up for its duration.
Rad is a fairly typical gumshoe. I quite like the anonymity of the man. The private gumshoe who fades into the background thrust into an adventure beyond his means paints a sympathetic picture. His character is a standout amongst a range of impressive and distinctive characters.
The middle part of the novel takes a breather with several high-octane twists and turns bookended by credible world-building. The Empire State organically grows from the text and at no point do you feel that exposition is being heaped on you.
Despite the central tenets of the novel, the steampunk robots, the noir setting, Zeppelins in the sky etc, Christopher moulds and concocts them into a stylish thriller and developing mystery that sustains and papers over any cracks that develop with the sheer style and substance of his world. For a debut novel, the pacing is just right, and his tone is easy to read without being condescending to the reader. The twists and turns, when they come, keep the plot fresh, even of at times you feel like you are inside a snow globe that is being shook, such is the sheer energy crackling from the pages. Technological concepts are handled with ease, never alienating the reader.
Kudos to Christopher as well for actually utilising the stylistic tropes as plot points rather than because they look good. The image of the gas masked villain has been used any number of times, but here it has a legitimate purpose and one that neatly fits into the plot.
There are a few areas where the ideas threaten to pull the story off the rails. The sheer weight and momentum of these threads means that in its closing stages Empire State becomes difficult to keep up with – despite this, the rollercoaster ride is unpredictable and refreshing. Characters allegiances and motivations become clear – but the pendulum of plot runs the risk of not rewarding those paying attention.
None of this should detract though from what is an immersing entertaining and atmospheric journey into another world. Ripe for development, it is fitting that this world launched Angry Robot’s Worldbuilder project – and a sequel is already on its way from Christopher for 2013. The Empire State of the title has not been fully explored here – but that’s because there is much more to come.
The Fiction Stroker gives Empire State four strokes out of five:
Adam Christopher will be at Waterstones in Macclesfield on Saturday 15 September from 11am to sign copies of this, and his new novel Seven Wonders. Empire State is available now from Angry Robot books.