Empire State is the debut novel by Adam Christopher. Set in an alternative thirties New York that’ll be familliar to pretty much everyone. Our main character is an alcoholic private detective and there’s sinister goings on involving murder, masked superheroes, robots and the endless quet for coffee.
What unfolds is, on the face of it, a rip-roaring adventure with enough struture and twists to make it feel worthwhile.
So why did I find it such a struggle?
Firstly there’s the plot. It’s actually a pretty thin one. I think I can say without too many spoilers that someone has a genius/evil scheme that might destroy the world and it’s up to our hero to stop them. Yet Christopher manages to include a dizzying number of twists that are either inconsequential or so poorly explained you don’t realise there’s been a revelation. It’s like someone decided to make a game of rock paper scissors more interesting by putting the competitors in a tumble drier for a few minutes beforehand; painful and likely to induce vomiting.
Next is the characters. Our hero was introduced far too late for me to latch on to him as that important and I spent much of the first half of the book waiting for the perspective to shift back to one of the guys at the start. Worse than this was the grating disconnect between the characters’ responses and the events going on around them. Our hero seems to convey inappropriate and strong emotions when not much has happened and things that clearly deserve attention wander past unnoticed. By the end of the book I could tell you virtually nothing about any of the characters personalities or motivations besides those few that are so blunt they’d have trouble cutting the air at a soft butter convention when everyone’s stoned.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the prose didn’t work for me. I’d re-read occasional paragraphs trying to figure what exactly wasn’t working and there was no repeated words, over-use of adjectives, or gratuitous mention of mendula oblongata. But when [SPOILER ALERT] you’re following characters in a climax that’s part Indiana Jones part Pirates of the Caribbean… in the sky! And reading it is actually boring, then something has most definitely gone wrong.
Which is all a terrible shame because, in spite of everything I’ve put above, there is some genuinely good stuff in Empire State. It’s actually got more interesting and original ideas than a hell of a lot of contemporary sci-fi (at least the stuff that’s getting published), but too many of them are either ignored, overused or hidden beneath a thick tasteless topping of imperfectly executed story-telling and clunky prose.
In short, good for a first attempt, but it’s painfully clear that it’s still a first attempt.
P.S. I’m currently 13% of my way through Fifty Shades… nothing to report… yet…