Monday, 15 July 2013

Empire State: Adam Christopher

This book caught me out slightly. I bought it as an ebook, having read the free sample that you can often get ahead of time so as to weigh up whether you want to spend more time on the book. I bought Wool on that basis, and also The Terror of Living, and so it seemed to me that this was a strategy with a bit of a future to it, though I did wonder if we were going to live in a world where all books had twenty really good pages at the start and then a really sharp fall off in quality afterwards.

Empire State doesn't have a steep fall off in quality after the sample; it just turns into a completely different book. The sample is pretty much entirely a bad evening in the life of a small time bootlegger in a Prohibition-era Manhattan that has feuding superheroes in the skies overhead. It's tight, and well-written and quite exciting, and I wanted to see more of that. So I bought the rest of the book, and that character's nowhere to be seen, and neither is Manhattan, still less the feuding superheroes. Literally with the turn of the page to the paid for section, we switch viewpoints and whole worlds, and I wasn't reading at all the book I thought I was going to be.

I read on, wondering if it was all going to level out or what, but no, we never got back to that sharp opening. I wasn't reading a bad book; I was just reading something that I wasn't in the right mood for. Which would have been true even if I'd bought the dead-tree version, by the way; the blurb on the jacket is pretty misleading too. Which happens all the time, and you correct for it a bit, but I was struck by the coincidence that the switch of tone happened to fall just at the point where the sample broke off on its cliff hanger.

You're not going to get a superhero book at all, really. What's on offer is  a mixture of noir detective story and parallel universe story, with some clever ideas about parallel universes and quite a lot of Rocketeer type super science hanging round the edges. As with all noir detective stories, the private dick spends a lot of time wondering what the hell is going on, but the narrative is so dream-like and disconnected, I spent the first half of the book waiting for the apparently inevitable reveal that the main character is just an avatar in someone else's noir computer game. The actual reveal is quite a bit more clever and well thought out, and largely justifies a lot of the hard work the reader's had to go through to get that far, but it's not a fun read, really. I'd been expecting something a good bit more bubble gum. Empire State is not a light-hearted romp for all that it's about quite silly things.

Chandler once said that when you don't know how to get from one scene to another, the easy fix is for a man to come through the door with a gun; Christopher's gloss on this seems to be that when he can't come up with any other way to make a transition, something hits his viewpoint character on the head. I lost track of how often Rad Bradley lost consciousness, but he invariably shakes it off without more than a grumble about where his hat's got to this time. My last adventure in knocking my head off something didn't knock me out for even a second as far as I can tell (as I said to the doctor who asked if I'd lost consciousness "I don't think so, but how would I know if I had?"), and I was having trouble thinking straight a fortnight later. Plainly I need a noir head. 

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