Adam Christopher’s debut novel, Empire State, is billed as a mix of science fiction, noir and super heroes. It’s actually quite light in the super hero department and heavy on the noir elements. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The SciFi is limited to explaining how the Empire State, a dreary copy of Prohibition era Manhattan, exists in its pocket universe. The pocket universe is, in a sense, another way to work with alternate history—so even when I try to branch out from my recent alternate history infatuation, I still end up reading it! The super heroes (or more appropriately, one super hero and one super villain) are the Skyguard and the Science Pirate and they’re introduced near the beginning of the book while in mid battle over the construction site of the Empire State Building. Their battle is what causes the creation of the pocket universe and once created, the story switches to the lives of those living in the Empire State. In the Empire State it’s always Wartime and always raining. There is nothing outside of the Empire State, nothing except the Enemy. The book mainly follows Rad Bradley, a classic hard boiled, hard drinking, fedora wringing private investigator as he investigates what he thinks is a simple case of a missing woman. As with mysteries and noir, it’s never that simple though. The missing woman leads to murder, conspiracy and a threat to the very existence of the Empire State itself. It also leads back to the Skyguard and the Science Pirate. Suddenly Rad realizes that there are a lot of things about his world that don’t make sense and once you realize that there’s no going back for him.
Although it wasn’t as heavy in the super hero billing as I expected it to be, the novel was a great read. I’ve always been a big noir fan, so that might be why I didn’t mind the cut back on the super hero aspect. The book doesn’t quite fit into the noir mold either, the elements are all there (including the femme fatale) but the ending doesn’t quite mesh with traditional noir. It’s definitely a hard boiled mystery with science fiction elements. There’s even a little dieselpunk thrown in for good measure. What might make it a little hard to follow would be the jump between Manhattan and the Empire State, which involves distortion of time. The time distortion at first didn’t seem necessary to me and I wondered why go through all the trouble of introducing it, but as the end approached and I started thinking about all the people who had the various bits of information necessary to plot resolution, it started making more sense. This is one of those novels where you think you have things figured out and then Mr. Christopher throws a twist in there to let you know it’s not that easy to figure things out in the Empire State.
If you’re looking for a good fun romp that mixes gangsters, super heroes and private eyes give Empire State a try. If you’re a writer who enjoys the setting of the Empire State you might want to check out the World Builder project. Or if you’re looking for a new game setting, Angry Robot has a handy FREE RPG created by David “Doc Blue” Wendt.