I so wanted to love ‘Empire State’. With its vibrant Art-Deco style cover to its promise of super-heroes in prohibition era New York, and a Chandler influenced protagonist, it should have ticked every box. Unfortunately I rather had the wrong end of the stick. I had anticipated a light, thrilling read – ‘Spandex and Speakeasys’, if you will. Instead, at the centre of the novel is a tantalising dual reality, and a tale the true nature of which is elusive and hard to pin down. There are peculiar and inexplicable goings on that, until the trick was revealed, made my brain hurt. Unfortunately, the sleight of hand, once performed, was underwhelming.
Christopher is undoubtedly an author to watch, but with ‘Empire State’ I felt he’d tried to be too clever. There is so much crammed into the novel’s 400 pages, it’s hard to gain a sense of what the novel is really about. Whilst this is in no way a bad read, had I at some point lost my copy, I could happily have gone through life never knowing how the book finished.
It is almost impossible to review ‘Empire State’ without letting a few things slip, so if you don’t want to know anything about the story and structure of the book, then look away now…
The settings for the novel are great. New York proper is barely in the book but it is well-drawn nonetheless. Taking centre stage is the Big Apple’s sinister alter-ego, ‘Empire State’. A city that coexists with the real New York, Empire State is a police state, overseen by the shadowy ‘Chairman’, who resides on the 101st floor of the Empire State Building. The novel’s protagonist, Rad Bradley, is a gumshoe, cast from the same mould as Philip Marlowe. He is hired to investigate the disappearance of a woman. Very soon a body turns up, but there are inconsistencies. Rad must work out what is going on; if he doesn’t, the consequences for the Empire State will be traumatic.
The book has two main problems. Firstly is the sheer number of existing works that Christopher borrows from. His overlapping cities are very reminiscent of China Miellivile’s ‘The City and The City’, as is the peculiar sense of detachment in the first half of the novel. The wisecracking PI is obviously straight from Chandler. If the Empire State is Gotham, then its superheroes are Batman (well one of them is anyway) and one of the villains will be all too recognisable to fans of the Bat. These are big boots to fill. All three represent masterworks of the genre, and Christopher just can’t compete. It’s a shame; inviting comparison to such works show inadequacies in the novel that would have gone unnoticed had the author not attempted to be so ambitious. When you add in alternate realities, doppelgängers, robots and airships, there are just too many balls to keep in the air.
For me though, where the novel really fails is with its characters. They are to a man, flat and uninteresting. My detachment from the novel was, in part, caused by my inability to empathise with any its players. I found it hard to care whether their world survived or not. So bland are the ensemble cast, I struggled to remember who was who, making it even more difficult to work out was going on. This problem was compounded by the fact that most of the characters in the book had similar but not identical doppelgängers, one for each world. Separating the characters in my mind, was like trying to arrange differing shades of beige without a colour key.
But these rather damning indictments paint too bleak a picture of what is great concept urban sci-fi. The execution may be clumsy, but at the heart of ‘Empire State’ is an intriguing story about trust, identity and state control. Despite being over-ambitious, Christopher should be applauded for the depth of his vision. I’m sorry I didn’t enjoy it more, but having said that I am still excited about Christopher’s next novel ‘Seven Wonders’.