Friday, July 13, 2012

Audiobook Review – Empire State by Adam Christopher

In 1920’s New York, two superheroes have a climactic fight to the finish, resulting in a tear in the space/time continuum. That tear opens up an alternate universe, one in which Manhattan island exists enshrouded in a fog and the government is known as the Empire State. It is a mirror of New York and its people, sometimes completely reversing someone, and sometimes only with minor changes. The Empire State is a dark world, in perpetual war against an enemy they cannot see beyond the fog – a place with technology that includes blimps and robots, and where a superhero’s murder can be just the opening in an apocalyptic battle to destroy the world.

This is an interesting book to review, and my thoughts are likely to go all over the place as I try to sum up my feelings. It’s mostly positive, though there are a number of issues throughout the book that keep it from reaching its true potential. I’m going to get some expectations out of the way – I had hoped more time would be spent investigating the murder of the woman who may be the secret identity of the Science Pirate. Radd, the P.I. hired to find the missing woman, is a well-rounded character and it was easy to relate to him, as he gets thrown into situations over his head and only sometimes manages to rise to the occasion. He drinks, despite prohibition, he like everyone in the Empire State suffers from memory loss, he has friends but doesn’t know them all that well, and he’s living in his office because his wife wants a divorce (having forgotten why they got married in the first place). Having a strong central character like Radd is one of the reasons this book works.

Because that investigation isn’t really what Empire State is about, nor is it really about superheroes (which was another of my expectations). The two “superheroes” are more in the mold of the Rocketeer, using science to enhance their abilities, and the story itself is more about the characters learning about the world they live in and why certain people are intent on its destruction.

Many of the supporting characters are likewise interesting. There’s the elder Captain who seems to know about the world beyond the fog, and his manservant cyborg. There’s also Radd’s reporter friend who after interviewing the Sky Guard (long a prisoner of the Empire State) seems determined to uncover the truth about the war, the giant ships they send to fight in it, and the possibility that the enemy is readying a secret attack at the city. Unfortunately, these same characters that start out interesting become enigmas along the way, as their motivations become far less clear in the last act of the book, and double-crosses become commonplace and this reader began to wonder about their logic.

There were a few characters who didn’t really bring much to the story, like Rex (the bootlegger from New York stuck in the Empire State) - he just felt kind of whiney until convenient moments when he would completely change and force plots to move forward by suddenly acting aggressive or becoming completely confident and a part of the plan the whole time. The revelation of the man behind the mask of the Pastor just came out of left field and had no impact on me at all (who?), and in general I felt like his congregation wound up being wasted potential. But then there were characters who are supposed to be nasty (like the Science Pirate or the goons from New York in their gas masks) who wind up as fun characters despite the fact that very little is learned about them or their motivations in the story.

One major flaw of the book though is the massive amount of introspection the characters mire themselves in. The reader learns many plot points well before other characters do because we’re given far too much information during these looks into their thoughts – which makes those same revelations boring once they come out for all the other characters to know – the reader has a feeling of “yeah, I already knew that”. At some point I realized that two characters had not been speaking for pages as one was thinking about how he was going to phrase a particular question he wanted to ask, and ultimately he never got around to asking the question, which likely would have saved them all some trouble along the way. Now, I can take those kinds of plots – if only X had done this differently – that’s just the way some stories are, but don’t spend so much time thinking about asking the question, and then not asking it. Too many characters reveal their backstories through the thoughts in their heads, too much time is spent with too many characters thinking about the Empire State and all its weirdness – the reader gets it.

There are also leaps of logic that characters in the story make that I feel like a reasonable person wouldn’t conclude under the same circumstances. No one ever assumes they must be dreaming or intoxicated when faced with the alternate universe, it’s all taken in stride and everyone continues along advancing the plot. There also seems to be no rhyme or reason to why certain people are nearly the same in both worlds, and others are completely different, nor a consistent understanding of how the fissure works – why time works differently in each end and how people can leave one at one time but arrive at all over the place in the other world. There are lots of interesting ideas in Empire State, like what’s beyond the fog and the nature of the enemy and the war, even the steampunk-type science that allows some characters to have superhuman abilities, unfortunately the story takes one of the least interesting aspects (the relation to the other world, New York) and makes that the central part of the finale. I have hope that a sequel might delve more into those things only hinted at in the Empire State.

There were some really great things about the audiobook for Empire State, from the use of music at the end of each disc, as well as repeating the last few sentences at the beginning of each new disc. That really helped refresh my memory and kept me engaged with the story through each break. It was well read, but this is one of the first times that I’ve actually wished for an abridged version, perhaps it would have removed some of the introspection I felt the book got bogged down in.

Despite my issues with the book though, for the most part I enjoyed it. I definitely had some difficulty near the end of the story – there were way too many double-crosses and switch-backs, but I stuck with it in spite of that because I liked the characters and wanted to see where things would wind up. The Empire State is an interesting mishmash of lots of different genre ideas, a worthwhile read that leaves open the door for more to come in the future.


PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

I read an advance copy of this last winter. It was pretty good. Really though "The Science Pirate" is about the dumbest superhero name ever. This is is my full review:

Maurice Mitchell said...

Jim, introspection can be good in a character, but it's easy to overdo it.

Liesel K Hill said...

Interesting. I'd never heard of this one but what a unique premise! Glad you liked it (for the most part.) :D Happy Friday.