Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

2012 Reading challenge, book 3: Empire State

Title: Empire State
Author: Adam Christopher
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Rating: 2 out of 5
Format: eBook

Well, it was bound to happen – I came across a book that I didn’t like. Empire State by Adam Christopher will no doubt please some readers, but I am not one of them.

About the book: It’s New York in the 1930’s, and a catastrophic fight between two superhero-like figures has inadvertently caused a rift in space-time. This rift begets a parallel version of New York known as the Empire State. The Empire State is grey, gloomy, rainy, and isolated, perpetually dealing with rations due to a never-ending war with a nameless, faceless Enemy.

However, private detective Rad Bradbury has stumbled into what could be a lucrative case – a girl whose disappearance the police won’t investigate. Things become even more puzzling when her body turns up and the police still refuse to get involved. Combine this with an unusual occurence at the docks – a ship has returned from a fight with the Enemy for the first time ever – and Rad finds out that he’s stumbled upon the most important case of his career: one that could lead to the destruction of the Empire State itself.

Note: The spoilers start here.

What I liked: The sci-fi elements were intriguing, but the only standout passage I can recall is the sequence where Rad, our protagonist, comes face-to-face with the fissure connecting New York to the Empire State. The interdimensional rift and its surrounding mechanical paraphernalia were the only part in the book where I felt awe and wonder at the proceedings. Everything else was a wash.

What I disliked: Here’s the “everything else” I’m talking about. There were so many problems that I had with this book that it’s hard to enumerate them all. Take it as a very telling sign that it took me a full week to read this book, and almost another full week to write this review. However, in the interest of being thorough, I will go through some of the problems I perceived:

  • The rift-causing cataclysmic fight between the two superheroes occurred at the very beginning of the book, but the one person who saw one of the superheroes survive is mentioned in the first two chapters and then dropped completely (as is all mention of the original NYC) for the following 10 or so chapters. Talk about whiplash.
  • It is revealed that the Empire State occupies a pocket universe. Fair enough. But on top of that, the pocket universe and the rift that connects it to the original New York already existed in unrealized form, and it was already occupied by the faceless force that the Empire State calls the Enemy. It turns out that the Enemy is somehow both a reflection of both New York and the Empire State. Because what the hell, why have a single parallel universe when you can have two, right?
  • All of the people in the Empire State are copies of people in New York, except for the prime villain behind it all. Instead, both he and his double occupy the Empire State within the same body, and the hosting body manifests split personalities. How is this possible, you ask? Why, because the villain (an influential judge in New York) somehow managed to enter the pocket universe before the Empire State was even created, and seize control of it at its moment of birth. No explanation is given for how he was able to find the rift and not be subsumed by the Enemy in the intervening period.
  • The rift (also known as the Fissure) has time dilation properties. This provides a rather handy excuse for people who wander into it to go missing for 19 years. Despite all this, there are people on the New York side of the Fissure who can predict the events of the Empire State timeline; this makes it incredibly easy for people to pop in and out of the action when a daring rescue is most convenient.

The case that Rad is asked to solve goes off the rails immediately and becomes tied to something much larger – the potential destruction of Empire State as other characters attempt to merge it back into the prime reality. So far, so good. But the final 50 pages are non-stop action of a bewildering sort, as everyone and everything moves, people get repeatedly injured, and characters change allegiances like a person with OCD washes hands (Captain Carson, I’m looking at you).

Speaking of flip-flopping, it’s never truly clear what will happen if the Fissure is tampered with. Some characters believe it will result in the two realities merging. Others believe that it will result in annihilation – a meeting of matter and antimatter writ large. Of course, when the Fissure actually is tampered with, it results in the tenuous connection between the two realities being strengthened, not diminished. This, along with almost all of the other phenomena the Fissure exhibits, is casually explained by the excuse that the Fissure is so unusual, almost anything is possible.

The verdict: This novel was a strange and frustrating beast. The noir/crime elements of the story– missing girls, corpses, down-on-their-luck detectives, crusading journalists, and lots of both booze and beatings – were so haphazardly blended with the later sci-fi elements that I was left scratching my head.

I gave this book 2 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. This is the lowest my GR ratings tend to go – I like to believe that I’d be smart enough to ditch any book deserving of a 1-star rating before I finished reading it. However, this book frustrated me because a lot of the time, it felt like the author was breaking the rules of his world whenever he thought it convenient – it felt like I was reading a less egregious version of the book described in this article from the Onion. I really wanted to like this book considering all of the effort publisher has spent building  buzz around it, but I just couldn’t overlook its flaws.

Next up: On Writing by Stephen King