Angry Robot is one of those publishers you just have to keep an eye on, because they come out with some unique, surprising fiction. Their books tend to defy genre conventions and often are impossible to classify. To mess with our heads even more, they then stick weird little filing instructions on them, such as “File Under: Fantasy [ Aztec Mystery | Locked Room | Human Sacrifice | The Dead Walk!]” for Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, or “[The Mob & Magic | Ancient Secrets | Zombie Wizardry | Bet Your Life]” for Matt Forbeck’s Vegas Knights.
So when Angry Robot announced Adam Christopher’s Empire State and mentioned a Prohibition-era parallel universe in the book description, deftly combining two topics I dearly love, I couldn’t wait to get my copy. (And if you’re wondering, this one says: File Under: Science Fiction [ Pocket Universe | Heroes or Villains | Speak Easy | Loyalties Divided ]). Unfortunately, Empire State didn’t entirely live up to my expectations, but there’s still a lot to love about this intriguing debut novel.
Rex Braybury is a small time bootlegger in Prohibition-era New York who is shaking down one of his clients when a competitor shows up and threatens to cut his burgeoning criminal career short. The resulting chase scene ends with him more or less accidentally witnessing a major confrontation between the city’s two major superheroes, the Skyguard and the Science Pirate — a fight that will prove to have major consequences….
A few chapters later, we’re introduced to private detective Rad Bradley, who lives in the Empire State, a strange — but strangely familiar — city that’s perpetually at war with an unseen Enemy somewhere beyond its mist-shrouded shores. It’s the year Nineteen, and all is not well. The Empire State’s citizens survive despite rationing, Prohibition, an overbearing bureaucracy, and the fact that people’s memories seem to be strangely incomplete. In this odd environment, Rad manages to stay afloat by taking scarce P.I. jobs, living in the back room of his office and regularly visiting the neighborhood speakeasy. When we first meet Rad, he is being accosted by two men wearing gas masks who demand to hear what he knows about “nineteen fifty”… until the Skyguard appears to save him. The real puzzler, however, is how the Skyguard managed to rescue Rad, because — as Rad’s friend Kane Fortuna informs him shortly afterward — the Skyguard was supposedly executed before he saved Rad…
Empire State is a debut novel that has a lot going for it, but ultimately it didn’t quite work out for me. I expected a different result, because there’s a lot here that I usually love. There’s Prohibition-era material — and I often love stories set in this period. There’s noir. There’s a pocket universe. There are, for crying out loud, actual superheroes. Dear reader, I was so ready to love this book.
The problems ultimately all go back to the characters. The book gets off to a bit of a false start with Rex the bootlegger. We don’t really get the chance to get to know him, because he’s only allotted three chapters before he abruptly disappears from view and Rad takes over. Rad is slightly more interesting as a main character, but like Rex he never really grabs your attention. Like too many of Empire State’s characters, Rad simply never acquires much depth. There’s actually a great explanation for this lack of depth in the story, but we don’t find out what it is until much later. Unfortunately this means that, for a good chunk of this novel, you’re reading a story populated by characters that feel like shallow reflections of real people. I found myself losing interest a third of the way in, and while I was curious enough to keep going, I was sorely tempted to give up several times.
So Empire State may not be a good fit for readers who first and foremost look for well-rounded characters, but on the plus side its concept and setting are fascinating. The book’s atmosphere and premise occasionally reminded me of Philip K. Dick. That’s never a bad thing. There’s a grey emptiness to both the characters and the setting that’s somehow a bit Kafkaesque. (Don’t you wish Kafka had written science fiction noir set in an alternate Prohibition-era New York?) Much of the novel is set in an odd, distorted version of reality that manages to be at the same time sinister and campy — a pulp fiction world that has darkness creeping in from the edges. It’s an unsettling, unique place to visit.
Maybe it was the strength of this setting, and the way Adam Christopher left his fictional universe wide open for further exploration, that made this novel such a good fit as the first starting point for Angry Robot’s Worldbuilder, a site where readers can share fan fiction and art set in the world of Empire State. It’s nice to see a publisher actually encourage fans to work and play in one of their authors’ fictional universes, and even nicer that some of this fan art may eventually even be published by Angry Robot.
Empire State is a book I fully expected to love. I wanted to love it, because its concept is so damn cool, but in the end I had to admit that it simply didn’t work for me. The “Alternate Prohibition” setting is a great idea, and it’s wonderful that Angry Robot and Adam Christopher have opened it up as a playground for others, but the actual novel somehow feels like an outline that wasn’t properly filled in, mainly because the characters just don’t have enough substance to carry an entire book. Still, this is a promising debut, and I’m confident that it will find a large readership because it’s full to the brim of neat ideas. If you’re looking for atmosphere and concept, Empire State is definitely worth a look.
This review was originally written for Tor.com, and was published there on December 27th, 2011.