Angry Robot Books
In another regular feature of the blog, I’ll be trying to review as many books as I can get a hold of from my favourite publisher, Angry Robot Books. First up: Empire State by Adam Christopher
Being a Private Detective in the Empire State is already difficult enough for Rad Bradbury. There’s the unsocial hours, the bills that are barely paid by the few clients he gets, not to mention the rationing and curfews caused by Wartime and the on-going struggle against The Enemy. He doesn’t need to be roughed-up in an alleyway by weird goons in strange-looking gas masks, or to be rescued from them by the Skyguard, a superhero who was supposed to have been executed by the City Commissioners some time ago. And as if that wasn’t enough for one man, if he’s actually in his mid-forties, why can’t he (or anyone else in The Empire State, for that matter) remember further back than twenty years ago?
In the interview section at the back of the book, the author notes that a beta reader of Empire State described it as a “graphic novel in prose form”, and I have not been able to come up with a more fitting descriptor. From the very first scene, a car chase and gunfight through the crowded streets of Manhattan, which is interrupted by a colossal public brawl between the two superheroes who have chosen to reside in New York, the entire novel is tightly written and deftly plotted – each chapter, even down to each paragraph, is like the prose version of a comic book panel. This is a story that is just crying out for an adaptation to a graphic novel – even the striking cover art evokes the covers of 1930s and 1940s pulp comic strips like Dick Tracy. Consequently, the plot never lets up, even for a second, and there’s no wasted dialogue or superfluous plotlines to delay the reader or divert their attention.
Empire State is very high level of writing and has a well-thought-out plot (not something that can be said of every novel or author), and this obvious quality carries through to the novel’s characters. On first inspection they all seem to have the two-dimensional, stereotypical properties of a pulp comic strip (the hard-bitten, hard-drinking, down on his luck P.I.; the nosey newspaper reporter; the scummy gangster), but as the story progresses, Christopher deftly adds in some nice touches to each character that gives them that third dimension. The primary protagonist Ray Bradbury, the P.I., has a (soon to be) ex-wife, which is hardly unique for the character type, but we get an insight into his enduring confusion over why they’re getting a divorce, and even the far more basic question of how, or why, they met and fell in love. Even the gangster Rex elicits a small amount of sympathy by the end of the story – a small-time crook, a villain and murderer, by the end of the story he is patently out of his depth, desperate to do anything, and obey anyone, that will get him back to his own universe.
The plot of Empire State has obviously had a lot of world-building put into it, which is obvious by the WorldBuilder section included with the interview at the back of the novel – there’s enough there to fuel an entire RPG system. The concept of parallel universes is skilfully handled, and the differences between the Original and Pocket New York’s are clear enough without falling into caricature – Empire State is obviously a pulp image of New York, but has enough differences and imperfections to prevent it seeming generic. Christopher is also wise enough not to go into too much detail about how the Pocket was created, or how it functions. There’s some backstory that gets rolled out late into the story, and allusions to the origins of The Enemy which are tantalising in their long-term implications (why mirror-images – why ships versus airships, for example?), but fortunately there’s no detailed explanation of the science that would destroy the mystery or derail the plot.
Ultimately, Empire State is an incredibly satisfying read, with a strong plot and original universe , interesting characters and great writing, and I cannot wait to pick up (and review) the sequel, also published by Angry Robot Books – The Age Atomic.