Book (well, audiobook) review: Adam Christopher’s Empire State

I first heard about Adam Christopher’s Empire State in passing a couple years ago, only to recently stumble across the audiobook at a used bookstore. Given that I’ve been doing more than alittle bit of driving recently, I thought I’d give it a go.

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Empire State is an odd book.

The cover and the back blurb are what lured me in. A tale of battling superheroes in prohibition-era New York? Count me in! Christopher starts things off with a bang, with chase scenes and a big flashy battle between New York’s premiere super-partners turned super-enemies, The Skyguard and The Science Pirate. We witness them having their final battle, at which point the Skyguard is defeated, and the Science Pirate’s identity is revealed to show a woman under all the Art-Deco Iron-Man armor. Great start.

Unfortunately, the rest of the novel doesn’t live up to the premise. As soon thereafter, Christopher switches gears from superhero to noir, and we meet the book’s real protagonist: a private detective by the name of Rad Bradley. It took me a little while to get over naming a character “Rad” in anything that wasn’t about rollerbladers, but I grew up in the 90’s.

So yeah. Rad Bradley. He’s your typical hard-drinking P.I., hired onto a typical missing persons case, by a typical gorgeous dame. And soon enough, Christopher takes the novel in a completely different direction after that, revealing a convoluted plot involving robots, alternate realities (four of them, to be precise!), time dilation, clones, airships, secret conspiracies, and dudes in gas masks. Honestly, all The Empire State is missing is dinosaurs and/or Nazis to hit a complete Pulp Bingo. On top of that, Christopher works in some other comic-booky references as well, such as a book called “Seduction of the Innocent,” (no, not the one you’re thinking of) playing a minor role in the plot. I’m pretty sure there were a few streets named after famous comic book artists and authors as well, but the thing about reading an audiobook is that you can’t go back to an exact page to re-look up a reference. Ah well.

Empire State is Christopher’s first novel, and the whole kitchen sinkiness of it all really shows. It’s a tricky thing, working in so many disparate themes and ideas and other ‘cool stuff’ into one book. If it’s done right, it can be a blast. Other times, things can get a bit muddled. Empire State sadly falls into the later category. The plot is both convoluted and unessescary. Rad Bradley doesn’t do much in the way of detective work; instead, he mostly gets led from one point to another, at which some strange and mysterious character will exposit at him, or explain some strange and weird mad science stuff.

That strange and weird mad science stuff is the book’s biggest weakness. Not that there’s mad science stuff in the first place, but rather, because it doesn’t make much sense. The whole book centers around a fissure between dimensions, which seems to do … well, just about anything Christopher needs it to. There’s time dilation, and otherworldly dopplegangers, and all kinds of other weird shit that just … happens, which I assume is mostly because Christopher thinks it’d be cool. On top of that, the character motivations don’t make much sense either. Everyone’s conspiring and conspiracy-ing against each other, mostly so there can be a ridiculous “no, I betray you!” series of double and triple betrayals at the climax.

The problem with this is the fact that pretty much all the characters want the same thing. This could be a source of comedy, as they stumble over each other in their efforts to get it, but Christopher doesn’t write it out like that. Instead, I was left at the end just thinking “you know, if everyone sat down and had a rational conversation about this, it’d be a lot less trouble.” I admit, acting reasonably doesn’t make for the most interesting of plots, but it’s probably not a good sign if most of the actions of your book could be prevented by someone holding up a finger and saying “wait a minute … “

I was also disappointed by The Science Pirate– I mean, Art-Deco Iron-Man (Iron Woman?) is a fun concept, as a hero or a villain, especially in the 1930’s. But again, as I mentioned before, the book soon refocuses on Rad Bradley and his investigations. When The Science Pirate finally does reappear a few dozen chapters later, it’s only in a minor role, and she still doesn’t get much in the way of spotlight, and the book goes out its way to de-power her armor, and it says that she doesn’t have the expertise to make it work again (despite the fact that they apparently needed her help to build the plot-device-machine for the climax?).

I suppose it’s all a matter of expectations. I went into Empire State ready for a pulpy superhero romp, and I wound up getting a jumbled grab-bag of tropes instead. I think the book could have benefited from more focus, cutting out some of the jumbled and extraneous bits for a cleaner, more compelling plot. Then again, Christopher’s published several novels since Empire State, including one about a robot assassin in noir-era Los Angeles that I’d like to read, so hopefully he’s improved since his debut.

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