2020’s SANDMAN SLIM novel, Ballistic Kiss, is the second-to-last entry in Richard Kadrey’s long-running demon-fighter punk-wizard series starring James Stark as Sandman Slim. I don’t know what I will do when the series finishes. I’ll miss the big lug.
However, Ballistic Kiss didn’t leave me too much time to fret about the future; Stark has plenty of adjustments to make in his present. Brought back to life by the Sub Rosa magical practitioners after a year dead, Stark is living in a flying-saucer shaped house owned by the Sub Rosa, struggling with PTSD, when the book opens. Returning from Hell (and death), Stark has discovered that, to his way of thinking at least, his friends’ lives have improved without him. Candy is in a much less complicated relationship with Alessa. Kasabian’s video store has, surprisingly, become financially successful. Stark is trying to figure out where, or even if, he fits in, when Abbott, the leader of Sub Rosa, approaches him with a job. A mob of murderous ghosts has swarmed an eccentric Los Angeles neighborhood called Little Cairo, and the ghosts have so far proven immune to every attempt to quiet them or exorcise them. Meanwhile, Samael, the former Lucifer, has a job for Stark too — track down an elusive angel named Zadkiel, who can reopen Heaven. (Rebel angels locked the doors to Heaven, having decided to keep it for themselves, dooming all humans, good or bad, to Hell.)
That should really be enough to keep Stark occupied, but on his way back from a drive, Stark observes a group of well-dressed thrill-seekers, running across an LA freeway in the dark, blindfolded. It soon turns out that Stark’s new friend Janet is connected with this group of adrenaline junkies, who manage to kill about one person per outing.
Janet is gender non-binary and Stark struggles to get their pronouns right. I really liked this aspect of the story. Kadrey is not playing this issue for laughs or trivializing it. Stark cares for Janet and wants to show that he takes Janet seriously, but like many of us, he’s absorbed several decades of indoctrination and habit. Janet presents as female, and Stark struggles to use “they” and “them.” He screws up, but keep trying, and it’s a really validating part of the book.
In case you’re worried that Stark’s attempts at enlightenment take front and center, rest assured that he is correcting himself from “her” to “them” while he tracks the ghost of a B-list actor who was murdered in the 1970s, races ahead of a wildfire storm as part of the adrenaline junkie group, fights off several onslaughts of murderous ghosts, and struggles to decipher what Candy wants from him. There is action and suspense galore.
I thought a couple of points were obvious from the beginning. At one point, Stark calls himself “slow” for not grasping a big clue about the actor ghost’s murder, and I agreed with him. However, Stark’s investigation brought us two fascinating minor characters, a washed-up actor and a Sunset-Boulevard-level doomed film diva, and both were wonderful. The group of thrill seekers are simultaneously obnoxious, oblivious, and evil.
The flying saucer house is awesome.
In the quieter moments, Stark tries to reconcile with his old friends. Kasabian has completely rejected him it seems, but Allegra and the immortal alchemist Vidocq are still helping him, and they have mended their relationship. This is a SANDMAN SLIM book though, and several multi-book story arcs are resolving, so don’t expect things to go well for everyone. In fact, one catastrophe that overtakes a friend was a complete surprise, expertly delivered by Kadrey.
In a video book-launch earlier this month, Kadrey mused that the overarching story-question of SANDMAN SLIM might be, “Can a monster become human?” Stark is struggling with that question, but we readers know the answer. I hope in the final book, the truth will become clear to him as well.