gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Empire State - Adam Christopher (Angry Robot)

There are so many novels set in New York. Of those, an exceptionally large proportion love Manhattan. Of those, a significant proportion are noir, or steampunk, or steampunk noir. Pyr put out one quite recently (George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan, which I talk about here) so it makes sense, that, since Angry Robot like steampunk (look at the Jeter, and the novels by Tidhar), and noir (lots of noir! Every fifth book of theirs is noir) and are based in England… OK, so that last bit doesn’t quite work. Basically, there is a market desire for steampunk and noir and Manhattan is cool, so publishers are buying and selling books with those themes.

The question is, what is Angry Robot's noir Manhattan steampunk novel like? Maybe I should start with what it's called (Empire State) or who wrote it (Adam Christopher), but tonight I'm not being rational. I emerged from the Middle Ages (ghosts and Jewish customs and crafts) into this novel and feel somewhat turned upside down.

It's a pacy novel, starting with a foot on the accelerator, which nicely symbolises what's to follow. Illegal liquor during prohibition, the industry that supplies it, lots of bad guys, superheroes with the golden age turned to dross, a private eye, a newspaper reporter - and that's just the first thirty pages. A lot of it has a familiar feel, largely because it plays with the stuff of noir and the stuff of superheroes and the stuff of other popular trends. It's not historically precise, but it's not the sort of novel that has to be. Perfect summer reading, which is great for those of us who are about to get summer. Maybe firelight reading for those sad souls stuck in the cold north.

Like other books of its kind, the pace is occasionally punctuated by explanation. There's too much background for it to be woven seamlessly into the narrative. Or maybe information scene-setting blocks is part of the joy of the sub-genre. Either way, they're there, and undeniably so. Why someone would rehearse the history of superherodom in Manhattan while suffering rather dramatic personal problems that have only just occurred is a mystery to me but it's not specific to Christopher. Steampunk noir often seems to include drama then a halt for a bit of backstory, then more drama. I like my stories told a little differently, but I can't criticise Christopher for a technique so many other writers use. Or I can, but I shan't.

Once the explanations are past, the novel picks up again. And why am I writing this in the present tense? This is because when the novel picks up it really does. It's a bit busy - switches from big thing to big thing without a sense of them connecting in a grand way, or fitting together like the tiles on a pavement. The planning is there, but it felt a bit disconnected to me. Maybe it was the language. Maybe it was the characters. It's more likely to be the exposition, though, that it was a bit uneven. That's the bad news. The good news is that when this approach works, it gives the same sense as Jeter or Harland in their steampunk novels - the feel of a society that's fundamentally strange and careening into disaster.

And then the novel shifts. It starts to work. And then it becomes special, in its steampunk noir Empire State way.
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