Fancy a bit of scifi noir, superhero time travel, alternative history thriller? Then you are in luck. Empire State is a very satisfying genre-mixing novel that kept me thoroughly entertained and frequently baffled. I love novels that play with genre, and this one does it with much skill and great aplomb.
I’m not going to try and straighten the story out for you, that pleasure is yours as you read the book. But, the Empire State is a parallel New York City. They exist pretty much next door to each other, but only a handful of people know of the existence of both. The story starts in Prohibition-era New York with Rex, a bootlegger in the middle of a heavy car chase that ends in an inevitable crash. As he extricates himself from the wreckage he sees police and crowds of people, but it’s not his little incident that has caught their eye. No, it’s the two superheroes slugging it out over the unfinished Empire State Building. This abrupt shift from mobsters to superheroes, just a few pages in, really made me sit up and pay attention. I absolutely loved the way it was thrown right in there; superheroes as fact of life. The Skyguard and his protegee the Space Pirate are embroiled in their final showdown. A huge explosion signals the end for one of them. As the dust settles Rex spies a new opportunity, and off he wanders, only to get completely and utterly lost.
Meanwhile, over in the Empire State, Private Eye Rad Bradley is getting a working over from two goons in gas masks. They keep asking him what he knows about 1950, much to his confusion. 1950 what? I love Rad, he’s a big lump of a fella, gasping for a drink in a ostensibly dry town, running into trouble where wiser men might steer well clear. He’s not in the best shape, either physically or emotionally, and the events he’s stumbled into will leave him more battered and bruised – I did wonder how bashed up one person could get. But Rad is solid gold. No matter how many twists and turns the plot took, and how much double and triple-crossing went on, I always kept faith with Rad. He’s a man to put your trust into.
There a whole cast of interesting (read eccentric) characters. Rad’s friend Kane is a hot-shot journalist with some pretty big secrets. Captain Carson, explorer and technological genius, is deeply involved in whatever it is that’s going on. The Pastor of Lost Souls is one creepy dude. And everyone wants something from Rad. The Empire State is in danger, and Rad is the one to save the city. Maybe.
I admit that first I struggled to keep New York and the Empire State separate, muddling them up and causing myself some confusion. I lost track of which one was which initially. What pulled it back together for me was reading in slightly bigger chunks. It was much more coherent for me then, and I was able to see where I was, no problem. As the story progresses the plot does whirl round and round; who to trust and what to believe is never obvious. In a very good way. The further into the book I got the more I wanted to keep reading. Towards the end I was almost at fever pitch, and the big denouement scene is huge. It was great. I was a bit reluctant to finish the book until I remembered there is already a second instalment out. I’ll be reading that very soon.
Empire State is available in Paperback; my copy was purchased with my own pennies from a bookshop. The sequel has recently been published, and is called The Atomic Age. For those tempted by this one I would also recommend Jake Arnott’s House Of Rumour, another genre-defying novel that I adored.