One of the very first books I read back in 2012, and my very first Angry Robot book too I think (might have been Matt Forbeck’s Carpathia actually!), was Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State, which mixed in several different genres together to create a really fun narrative. It could even be described as superhero noir-steampunk I suppose, which sounds awesome when you think about it and Adam definitely delivered on the promise as well.
This review is a repost of the original review on The Founding Fields, which can be found here.
“If Empire State could play poker, you would be out of your money by the end of the night. You cannot out-bluff this one!” ~ Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
I rarely get to read debut novels at or around the time of their release. The last, and only one that I can really remember at the moment, is Sarah Cawkwell’s debut novel for Black Library: The Gildar Rift. Incidentally that was the first book review I ever wrote. Debut novels, from the buzz I usually see in the circles I lurk in on social media and forums, can be either good, average or bad. However, something has to be said for when a particular debut novel is gathering a lot of, and I mean a LOT of, positive buzz. Especially when this is from early reviewers and editors and the debut writer’s peers. So with that in mind, for the last two months, I have been rather excited about Empire State, which is Adam’s debut novel and is being published by Angry Robot Books. I finally got around to reading this mammoth novel and the experience was better than I was thinking it would be.
From my experience, Empire State is not a typical science-fiction novel. It blends in so many other genres and concepts that it cannot really be classified into any one of those. However, the science-fiction elements of the novel are quite obvious in that they lead the pack rather than just be overbearing. The noir, thriller, mystery, steampunk, crime, fantasy, etc aspects of the novel never get lost in the narrative.
And for that alone, I would congratulate Adam on working them all in seamlessly into the story. You get everything from rocket-powered superheroes, detectives, reporters and mob bosses to airships, robots and ironclad-class warships. In that regard, the novel is quite an entertaining read, although at somewhere around 120,000 words it is quite daunting as well to read in a single sitting. But don’t let that stop you because Adam’s narrative, once it grabs you, is not going to let you go.
Talking of the narrative, my one major problem with Empire State is its pacing, especially in beginning where it is all too slow for my tastes. I don’t mind slow starts really but to me the novel was a little too slow in the beginning, and this is especially since part one of the novel is so full of action and ass-kicking!
That said, once the novel gets going, it really gets going. And this is when Adam starts to come in his own and the world he builds up really starts to take a concrete shape with so many subtle allusions and twists and turns that it is hard to predict how the story is going to finally pan out. Given how the novel combines so many different genres, there is a place for everything in the world of Empire State and consequently New York where the novel is set. We meet several different characters throughout the course of the novel, some who are important and some who are not. There is also the fact that sometimes characters who appear to be one of the movers and shakers end up not being that and the reverse is also true.
That is something I definitely liked here. I like it when my novels are not linear in that regard and every chapter is a surprise. Adam, as I mentioned already, handles this quite well, right from the first page and all the way to the last. The motivations of the characters don’t always make sense initially and it can be quite a while before you really get to understanding what drives them but when it does happen, it is all a very rewarding experience. You don’t feel as if the moment is either cheap or incomplete.
And that’s a good thing right? I think it is. It made the novel feel more complete to me.
Moving on to the actual story itself. Empire State has quite a non-traditional feel to it. That is down to, most of all, the novel combining so many different genres like I mentioned. There are superheroes, Skyguard and Science Pirate, in the novel but they are not any more important than our two male protagonists, Rad Bradly and Rex. We have criminals and government agents in the novel but they are not any more important than the reporter and the eccentric explorer. Every character gets significant time and attention, which is not something that can be said about many novels currently. There is a time and place that is just right for each and every one of them and they almost always surprise you with their decisions through their actions and their dialogue alike. The story is helped in that aside from being host to such a wide variety of interesting characters, it is also about self-discovery, finding your purpose, doing the right thing, saving the universe, reconciling old and forgotten relationships and so many more things than I can either adequately describe or even mention here without spoilering the novel itself.
Suffice to say that Empire State is quite the novel experience (pun intended).
One of the things that I really, really loved about the novel was that, in a historical context, it was set in Prohibition-era New York. In the beginning, this aspect of the novel is quite unassuming and may even slip under the radar as being just another of the interesting quirks of the novel, but as you keep reading, it takes on a life of its own. And its not just that this particular aspect is just there to add padding to the story. The Prohibition-setting becomes even more important since there is also a war going on and therefore everything in the world of Empire State is rationed. That is quite the nasty, in a good way, combination of things and our characters, particularly Rad Bradley keep reminding us of this as the story progresses on. In its own little fun way, this aspect of the novel totally kept me hooked. Private dick Rad is quite the drinker it seems!
One last, final thing I want to say about the novel. From everything I have seen over the last year, having really been exposed to the company of professional full-time writers, professional part-time writers, professional aspiring writers (the word professional is quite important since as someone wiser than me said: it is an attitude, not a status), debut novels are quite a big risk and experiment. Most of us, as readers, will not even realize this because it is not something that you really think about. When a debut novel is brilliantly written and gives a very satisfactory experience to the reader, that is when you know that the author has done a great job.
And that is exactly what Adam Christopher has done with Empire State. The novel has something for everyone and it is quite apparent that this is also very much a labour of love, to use some floral language. Reading the extras in the back of the novel, an interview, the usual acknowledgements, and most of all, the playlist that this novel was written to, I really came to appreciate just how much work went into this novel.
With that said, I highly recommend this novel to everyone, no matter what your taste or preference. It is very much the enjoyable read and its non-traditionality is its most endearing feature. I had a lot of fun reading it and I hope that you all give Empire State a chance and enjoy it just as much as I did.
Finally, on the subject of ratings, I rate the novel highly for a most fun experience and give it a 9/10. I dock the points only because the pacing in the first half put me off a bit as I prefer really fast-moving action-y story and Empire State is not quite there for me. So go out, get it, and give it a whirl. Even if you don’t come out of the experience with your mind-blown at Adam’s skills, you will at least enjoy it for the great read that it is . I guarantee it.