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Randall Reads: Empire State by Adam Christopher

August 22, 2012 Leave a comment

I fully wanted and expected to really enjoy this novel.

When I decided to read “Empire State,” all I knew about it was that there was a science-fiction angle as well as superheroes in a noir-ish story.

I also knew it came from Angry Robot Books, an imprint with which I’ve had mostly positive experiences, and that the sample I read of author Adam Christopher’s upcoming book, “Seven Wonders,” had me hooked nearly instantly.

Further, two of my favorite reads of the last few years have been very successful in layering detective/mystery/noir story elements into genre-type novels.

China Mieville’s “The City & The City” remains among my all-time favorite novels, having very successfully set a murder mystery in a world with a very interesting sci-fi (is ‘speculative’ a better word?) angle.

Low Town” by Daniel Polansky features more of a fantasy world (you know, medieval England with magic and dragons and all that?) in which the protagonist moves while trying to figure out who’s doing some murders.

“Empire State” actually has some interesting parallels with the Mieville work, particularly in that there are parallel worlds at the center of each novel’s setting.

It would be unfair to wish that Adam Christopher were as tight a story teller as Mieville, primarily because I feel very few writers I’ve read even come close to that level. However, I do feel like Christopher would have benefited from more-stringent editing or plot outlining. The fact of the matter is, there’s so much going on in this novel, that it’s hard to find the focus.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the things floating around a little too freely in “Empire State”:

  • Prohibition-era gangsters
  • superheroes
  • steampunk-like technology
  • prototypical noir detective
  • alternate/parallel worlds
  • religious cult activity
  • robots
  • war
  • male bonding/friendship
  • political power manipulation of information to citizenry
  • gay rights
  • split-personality disorder/duality of a personality

There’s likely some things I’m forgetting, but you get the point. That’s a lot of stuff to juggle. Ultimately, it leads to a lack of clarity as to what the story is about.

I would promise to not ruin it for you, but I am still fairly unsure myself. Even after three consecutive climactic scenes at the end of the book, you’re still unclear as to what the motivations behind the book’s initial conflict were in the first place. It’s not giving much away to say the two superheroes of the story have a big fight, which is crucial to the creation of the world in “Empire State.” The Space Pirate and the Skyguard were once a cohesive unit in fighting crime, but split. Why? Several people in the novel wonder this as well, which would lead a reader to think you’ll learn why.

Along similar lines is the issue of the extreme thinness of the characters in this story. Even Rex, the story’s protagonist, is little more than an archetype with a few personal issues thrown in to flesh him out a little, but it’s so very little that you don’t get a real sense of who he is.

I should admit here that there is a convention in the story that somewhat explains why the characters might seem half-formed, at best, but I think that would be a little cheap an answer as to why you don’t get a good sense of anyone in this book. Several characters have fairly large roles in the important events in the story, but their motivations are a complete mystery because they’ve not been developed much, if at all. All of which leads to a general lack of interest in how the dramatic conflicts ultimately resolve.

There is certainly enough action in “Empire State” that it is bound to have a more-receptive audience available out there somewhere than the one it found when I cracked it open (or whatever the ebook equivalent to ‘cracking a book open’ is).

I’ve had many a discussion with other readers who, like me, enjoy genre fiction but are frustrated that the level of writing falls often far behind the level of great ideas and stories. This is only a real problem when the result is a story that goes in too many directions with characters not well-enough developed to see it though.

It pains me to say that this is the case with “Empire State.” I will hope for better luck with “Seven Wonders” when it’s released next week (because it really does sound good!)

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