The New Zealand-bred, England-based author Adam Christopher has a thing for America. He's built a name for himself over the past couple years spinning fanciful yarns full of superheroes, shifts in time, and a refined pulp pop, starting with his New York City-set debut Empire State. His fourth and latest novel, the standalone urban fantasy Hang Wire, fiddles with that formula a bit without omitting a single element. If anything, Christopher amps up the mash-up on Hang Wire, combining everything from ancient deities to arcade carnies to serial killers. But where Empire State takes place in a parallel-universe Big Apple, Hang Wire digs with dark glee into another mythologically rich American city: San Francisco.
Ping-ponging between modern-day S.F., 19th-century "Oklahoma-to-be," and numerous points in between, Hang Wire doesn't follow a linear timeline. Christopher hasn't always handled that kind of structure as well as he could, but he brings a crystal clarity to Hang Wire that never feels gratuitous or cluttered. If anything, the frantic cuts and jumps only add to the hyperkinetic tale. It all begins with Ted Hall, a Bay Area blogger whose sudden, mysterious blackouts coincide with a cryptic message — "You are the master of every situation" — that starts to appear everywhere he turns. But he's just one of many characters whose point of view Christopher explores, including a benevolent, ruggedly handsome beach bum named Bob who somehow was alive during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and an inhumanly dexterous, superhero-like circus acrobat known as Highwire who has no memory of his life before the big top.
It's the book's most complex and tortured character, though, who truly connects. Joel Duvall is the son of a Civil War veteran who stumbles upon an antediluvian power — in the form of a coin — that's not only kept him alive throughout the centuries, but has compelled him to assemble the Traveling Caravan of the Arts and Sciences. The interludes devoted to his periodic escapades throughout American history are among the book's most compelling, and compellingly horrific. There's a sinister purpose behind Duvall's circus, one that seems linked to its star attraction, Highwire. Yet in his spare time Highwire is tracking a mass murderer, dubbed the Hang Wire Killer by the media, who's stringing up victims throughout San Francisco using what appears to be the same cable on which Highwire earns his applause.
Like a tightrope walker himself, Christopher deftly balances Hang Wire on multiple, crisscrossing threads of character and plot. As dizzying as it is, he never slips. Even when secrets swell to bursting with world-shaking promise, the story maintains a steady, nervy rhythm. The characters could be more deeply realized, and the ultimate unveiling of the source of evil — not to mention of Ted's strange message — doesn't pack as much suspense as it could. But like China Miéville's similarly sprawling urban fantasy Kraken, it coasts past its minor weaknesses on the strength of sheer flash, wide-lens spectacle, and giddy fun. Hang Wire is flush with the sort of geek-centric weirdness and galloping, whiz-bang pace that Christopher had previously only begun to master. In spite of so many moving parts, the result is a tightly wound, dynamic piece of genre-bending machinery. If that's a metaphor for Christopher's awestruck vision of melting-pot America, all's the better.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club.