If you enjoy novels that mash up their genres, smooshing a range of aesthetics together into a weird whole, then Adam Christopher’s The Age Atomic could be for you. At last count, it combines parallel universes, steampunk airships, superheroes, 50s nuclear paranoia and a noirish private dick together into one bizarre soup.
So, to really strain this metaphor to pieces, how tasty is that soup? Is it the same sickly green as the book cover?
Difficult Second Book?
The Age Atomic is actually the second book by Christopher in the world of the Empire State – the first one, simply entitled Empire State, sets up the premise and many characters. If you were lured in by Age Atomic’s lovely cover, I’d strongly recommend making a short detour to check out the previous book first. Don’t worry – its cover is equally lovely.
Not that The Age Atomic is new-reader unfriendly – I think you could get everything that happens easily enough, but it will have more resonance and interest if you’re familiar with everyone. Also, you’ll have appreciation for the improvement between the two: the second book worked a bit better for me.
The fun, runalong, comic-booky tone is the main strength here, and the quicker these books moved, the more I enjoyed them. Empire State has a whole first half which runs a bit slow, whereas The Age Atomic only has the spell in the middle where lead detective Rad Bradley is stuck in a warehouse for ages.
Look, I Just Love Comics, Okay?
“Comic-booky” doesn’t mean silly though – the sad journey of villain Evelyn McHale during the second book is one of the strong points, and her emotional finish brings a little grounding to a climax that might otherwise have been too broad and zappy.
Since the mysteries behind the universe are revealed in Empire State, this sequel is free to explore, flick between the two and show us some different sides to the worlds, especially the “real” New York. That was interesting, it felt more of a living, breathing place this time, like the range of influences fitted together more seamlessly.
I must admit though: after two books, I’m growing restless with Rad Bradley as lead character – his point of view and emotional range seem restrictive; I can detect my enjoyment rising when reading a chapter from someone else’s perspective. Is this intentional? Are the people in the “pocket” universe meant to feel more like fictional characters?
But yes, if you want to see all these genre ideas side to side, in a way that has clearly had thought put into it, these are two decent books and The Age Atomic is the best one. It’s seventy pages shorter than Empire State, and I’d be fine with the next one being shorter still – the more tense and fast-moving the scenes, the better this worked for me. Not life-changing, but enjoyable – if you like comics, they might particularly work for you.