Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel ReadyTitle: Shovel Ready
Adam Sternbergh
14 January 2014
Crown Publishing
science fiction, thriller, noir, dystopia
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Spademan used to be a garbageman, but that was before a dirty bomb and a series of other terrorist attacks killed his wife and turned New York into an empty toxic shell of a city. Now he’s a hitman. Which is also a kind of waste disposal.

His latest mark is an eighteen year old runaway named Grace Chastity Harrow, who is now going by the name Persephone. Her father is T.K. Harrow, a wealthy and powerful evangelist who Persephone has somehow betrayed. Spademan likes to keep his jobs as simple as possible, but this one quickly becomes complicated when Persephone reveals a secret that stops Spademan from killing her. It’s classic noir – the dame in distress whose troubles tug at the cynical protagonist’s hardened heart and get him tangled up in a more complicated and dangerous plot than he expected.

In this case, it’s because Persephone knows some disturbing secrets that would ruin her father’s holier-than-thou reputation and thwart a highly profitable new scheme that he’s set up – a highly realistic, biblically accurate virtual-reality heaven. By protecting Persephone, Spademan essentially opens his arms to some very powerful and utterly ruthless enemies.

I don’t read (or watch) much noir fiction, but from what I know of the genre I’d say that Adam Sternbergh has captured the tone perfectly. The writing is lean and edgy, simultaneously blunt and razor sharp. Sternbergh strips Spademan’s narration down to the brusque basics. He doesn’t even use quotation marks, which is easy to get used to but can be confusing. Sometimes you have to backtrack and figure out who is speaking, or if Spademan is just thinking rather than speaking aloud (and if you’re reading an ebook with messed up formatting that doesn’t have line breaks in the proper places – like a pirated eBook, for example – you’re fucked).

But I think the lack of quotation marks suits the blunt style and Spademan’s equally blunt character. He the typically dispirited anti-hero of noir fiction, the bad guy who takes it upon himself to be the good guy in a corrupt world.

Spademan is very strict about keeping his interaction with his clients down to the most basic requirements. He doesn’t want to know their reasons. He doesn’t need to justify what he does or live with it, because that’s what his clients have to do when they hire him. He is just a bullet, an action.

He kills men and women because he doesn’t discriminate, but he draws the line at children – he’s not that kind of psycho. His weapon of choice is a box cutter – easy to obtain and easy to hide but very effective. It kept reminding me of the very real terrorist attacks that happened in New York – planes crashing into the Twin Towers after being hijacked by men wielding box cutters. If this association with terrorists is deliberate, I wonder why Sternbergh chose this weapon for his character, who still hasn’t gotten over the death of his wife in a terrorist bombing. However, it does have a very apt sense of anger and disillusionment about it. It’s an unassuming but efficient weapon with which the disempowered defeat the powerful. I love this line from Spademan:

I may have once had some thin faith in something like cosmic justice, but now I believe in box-cutters.

It’s a belief that serves him well in this ravaged New York, where radiation poisoning is a daily threat. I wouldn’t call this a post-apocalyptic though, because the bombings were restricted to New York. The rest of the world, and the rest of America, is carrying on as usual, except for any problems caused by the loss of New York (but the novel doesn’t get into that).

The bombs didn’t actually kill that many people. Instead it killed New York’s tourist industry, and that eventually killed New York. Most people left, but many stayed – the poor, stubborn squatters, people with unusual business requirements, and of course dodgy underworld types who profit from lawless environments. There are also loads of wealthy people who don’t really live in the city because they spend most of their time in a virtual reality known as the limnosphere. This is basically a customisable online space, and while you’re in there your body is lying in a bed with a bunch of life-support tubes. The warehouses in the industrial area of Tribeca are full of rich people in beds.

I find this a tad unlikely though. If you’re going to spend all your time in virtual reality, then it doesn’t matter where you live, but if you’re rich, why not do it in a safe environment with reliable medical care, instead of a toxic lawless city? Many of Spademan’s marks are withered bed-ridden dreamers; he just walks in and slits their throats while they sleep. The seedier dens that cater to less upmarket clients make sense, but not the luxury versions.

Despite that snag however, I do like the concept of the limnosphere, largely because of spoilery stuff that I won’t reveal. And a rather likeable character who appears as a hot avenging angel when he’s needed most. Part of the plot plays out in the limnosphere, although Spademan prefers to avoid it having been addicted to it in the past.

His history is full of dark and tragic details that Spademan reveals over the course of the narrative. One of the words used to describe the book in the blurb is “tender” which I thought was a bit odd until I learned more about Spademan. It doesn’t detract from his edgy character, but it does add a wounded human side. I won’t give you any of the details; it’s nicer just to read them yourself.

Other words used to describe the book include “gritty, violent, funny, riveting”, and although I’m not so sure about the “funny” part, I agree that it’s all of those other things. A good quick and dirty thriller.

Downsides? Yes, there were some things I didn’t like. Sometimes, and particularly towards the end, a lot of information is withheld from the reader to maintain suspense, and with the terse writing style things start to get confusing.

The are also few women in the story, and although some of them are central to the plot, they have little or no control over it. Like Spademan’s wife, who is important largely because she died.

Persephone is the most important female character, not to mention the character whose actions set the plot in motion, but she is relegated to the role of damsel in distress in what is primarily Spademan’s story. In fact, there are two occasions in which the characters analyse the situation and decide that this is essentially a struggle between Spademan and T.K. Harrow, with Persephone as little more than a pawn. She does at least end up playing a more active role than pawn and proves to be extremely fucking deadly with a knife, but she still gets sidelined way too much. Sternbergh might be sticking to the conventions of the genre, but he didn’t have to go that far.

Common gender pitfalls aside though, it’s good read. Check it out.

Up for Review: Me and the Devil

This is the second time writer Nick Tosches shares his name and profession with his main character. The first time he was a thief, stealing an original manuscript of The Divine Comedy. This time he’s a writer who dabbles in vampirism and descends into madness. It’s more than enough to spark my curiosity.

Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches

Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches (Little, Brown)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

An aging New Yorker, a writer named Nick, feels life ebbing out of him. One night, at a dimly lit bar, he meets a tantalizing young woman, and the night that follows is the most extraordinary of his life. Propelled by uncontrollable, primordial desires, he tastes human blood for the first time and is filled with a sexual and spiritual ecstasy.

His revival quickly fades, and soon Nick is yearning for another taste of the elusive rapture. There follows a descent into madness and unimaginable hell, and a pursuit of otherworldly revelation.

With his vast knowledge of ancient wisdom, Nick Tosches has written a raw and blazing story that tracks from our darkest desires to the most sublime quests for beauty and truth. Outrageous, disturbing, and brilliant, Me and the Devil is a novel unlike any other.

Nick Tosches is uniquely acquainted with the half-lit New York world in which this novel is set. He is the author of three previous novels, In the Hand of Dante, Cut Numbers, and Trinities. His nonfiction works include Where Dead Voices Gather, The Devil and Sonny Liston, Dino, Power on Earth, Hellfire, Country, and Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He lives in New York City.


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Me and the Devil on the publisher’s website
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About the author:
Vanity Fair profile (Contributing Editor)
Goodreads page

Review of Empire State by Adam Christopher

Title: Empire State
Author: Adam Christopher
Published: 27 December 2011 (USA/Canada); 05 January 2012 (Rest of the World)
Publisher:  Angry Robot Books
Genre:  detective noir, steampunk, science fiction
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 5/10

It’s prohibition-era New York, and Rex Braybury, a small-time, no-scruples bootlegger, watches the city’s two rocket-boosted superheroes fight an epic battle in the sky. Once friends, now mortal enemies, the Skyguard and the Science Pirate end their final fight in an explosion that alters reality. Very few know about it, but the catastrophe spawns an alternative version of NYC:  the Empire State, “The City That Sleeps”.

Rex and the superheroes disappear for a while as the narrative crosses to the Empire State, a place that’s clearly a copied from NYC but at the same time is nothing like it. In this dreary city, Rad Bradley, the Empire State version of Rex, is a private detective down on his luck. He finds money and trouble when a beautiful dame in a red dress comes into his crappy little office anxiously asking Rad  to find her lover, a woman named Sam Saturn. Rad doesn’t hesitate to take the case, but it quickly gets him involved in something much bigger and more dangerous than tracking down a missing person. NYC and the Empire State are linked, not just by a tear in the fabric of reality but by a few people who have somehow crossed over. Among those people are Rad’s double Rex and Sam Saturn. But the rift between the worlds might close, and if it does it could destroy both cities. Rad suddenly finds himself having to deal with conspiracies, mysterious and dangerous people, fascinating steampunk technology, and an event that defies what anyone knows about physics, not mention the realisation that his home and his entire existence is just a flimsy copy of something else.

When reading this, I wondered how the book would work without a blurb or plot summary. It’s very seldom that you dive into a book without knowing what it’s about first, so can the blurb actually function as a necessary introduction? I wondered this because, after a few chapters from Rex’s perspective in NYC, you jump straight into the Empire State with Rad and it’s not until much later that it’s explicitly stated that this city was created by the superheroes’ fight (although this is implied). I wasn’t disorientated, because I already knew this from the blurb and plot summaries I’d read, but what if I hadn’t? Would I have felt very lost, wondering what this weird city was and why it was in the book?

Speculation aside though, The Empire State is an interesting place. It’s a mirrored impression of NYC, so that the two cities share similarities but are nevertheless vastly different. The Empire State is quiet, constantly shrouded in fog and almost always drenched in rain. It’s going through ‘Wartime’, fighting against ‘the Enemy’, which everyone just accepts even though it doesn’t make a shred of sense since no one ever leaves the Empire State. Such a thing is inconceivable because there simply isn’t anywhere else. But something about the Empire State simply prevents its citizens from thinking about all the contradictions of their existence. It completely lacks NYC’s energy, to the extent that the dreariness is almost palpable.

As in NYC, it’s the prohibition era of the Empire State, but the latter is more like a fascist state. It’s ruled by the City Commissioners, and any dissent will probably find you in an early grave. Not only is alcohol banned but cigarettes are forbidden too, and most food and drink are rationed (a tragedy for the traditional private dick who practically survives on coffee and booze).

Every person in the Empire State is a double of someone in NYC, although you won’t get to see many of them, just the few who play a role in the plot. In terms of tech, the Empire State is a steampunk world featuring massive iron ships (ironclads) and robots that are used for war, airships and automatons.

It’s an intriguing world, but the more you read the less impressive it becomes because Christopher’s world-building gets increasingly flawed and unstable in an unfortunate parallel with his end-of-the-world plot. Rather than getting a better grasp on what the Empire State is and how it works, everything seems to unravel leaving gaping plot holes and important questions unanswered. At one point we’re told that the Empire State and NYC “cannot co-exist, for they are the same place” and yet it’s very clear that they’re not the same place and they’ve obviously been co-existing for some time. Nevertheless we’re then told that the Fissure that links the two worlds might either be closing or opening wider, or that someone is planning to destroy it, but whatever the case, it’s BAD NEWS and Rad has to put a stop to it, whatever ‘it’ turns out to be. If he doesn’t then the Empire State will be destroyed, or possibly the Empire State and New York or maybe even the Empire State, New York and the world. Some people are trying to travel from the Empire State to NYC, either because they somehow got stuck in the wrong universe or because NYC is simply a better place. This may or may not work, and may or may not destroy the Empire State and possibly New York, who knows? There are clearly other methods of crossing over but these don’t seem to be an option. Key figures are hatching plots based on what they think they know but frankly no one really has a handle on the physics, me least of all. I’m not a fan of hard sci fi, but I’d really appreciate that kind of rigor here. The novel certainly claims to be sci fi rather than fantasy, but it’s really not trying very hard.

Perhaps the most frustrating plot point is when an archvillain is revealed to have set this whole thing in motion, but the book doesn’t tell you how his whole role in this in even possible. It’s INFURIATING.  Then there’s the matter of the doubles – every person in the Empire State has a double in NYC. However, there’s no consistency in the nature of the doubles. Rad is a private detective, the opposite of Rex who is a criminal. On the other hand another pair of doubles are so similar that they actually share memories and knowledge, which seems to contradict the way the two worlds work. Two pairs of doubles differ in age. Another pair looks dissimilar enough that no one realises they are doubles, whereas every other double is a splitting image of their counterparts. These inconsistencies suit the plot but weaken the structure of the whole.

Christopher is also guilty of the heinous crime of artificially maintaining the mystery by constantly varying Rad’s level of curiosity. This is one of my pet hates. Rad is a detective, a person who makes a living by noticing oddities and asking questions. And yet when he encounters things like Byron, a 7-foot tall automaton manservant in a brass helmet and boots, Rad decides it’s best not to ask about this kind of weirdness, only to make a mental note at the end of the novel that he must find out more. It drives me fucking loopy.

Perhaps I’m too fussy a reader for this book. It was released in the USA and Canada on 27 December and is being released worldwide today, and most of the reviews I’ve seen so far are positive. The novel does have a kind of pulpy appeal, especially for noir and steampunk fans. It also has some good ideas at its core and it’s well-written. There’s also a possibility that some of the gaps and inconsistencies in the plot were left there to give more creative space to the Worldbuilder project in which Christopher and publishers Angry Robot allow fan artists, writers and musicians to create their own works within the Empire State universe. Not that that’s a good excuse for a sloppy book, since it still has to stand on its own two feet. As a debut novel though, I’d say that even though Empire State doesn’t work for me, Christopher undoubtedly shows a lot of potential in terms of writing and ideas, so if he can tighten up the structure of his creations he could produce something really cool.

Buy a copy of Empire State at The Book Depository