Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey
Richard Kadrey’s Kill the Dead is the sequel to Sandman Slim, and James Stark has been keeping himself busy working for various entities in order to pay the rent. The Devil is one of the entities that makes use of Stark’s services, and he wants Stark to serve as his bodyguard while he’s in town on business. Stark is forced to juggle the obligations of both Heaven and Hell, and manages to place himself in the middle of a conflict that started at the dawn of time.
Richard Kadrey’s writing style is awesome. Seriously, I want this guy to write my epitaph after I die. I imagine it would go something like this:
“Here lies Justin Blazier. If you owe him money, you’re a lucky son of a bitch.”
Kadrey continues the gritty shit-kicking approach to writing that made the first novel so great. However, I do use the word “gritty” with some reservations. If I were to create a “Justin’s Scale O’Grittiness” and use it to grade the Sandman Slim novels — it would look something like this:
Normal Gritty = Rugged cowboy squints at the sun and then says something manly.
Using that as a base of grittiness and then applying it to a Sandman Slim novel:
Sandman Slim Gritty = Rugged cowboy squeals in terror whilst getting gang raped by coyotes and left to die on a cactus in the middle of the desert.
Now that I’ve established some perspective you might understand why “gritty” fails as an adequate descriptor.
If you thought Sandman Slim was sparse on the secondary characters’ development, book 2 doesn’t even try. Stark’s friends Vidocq, Allegra, Kinsky and Candy are all relegated to just a few pages. I found their lack of face time to be rather disappointing, since all the characters I just mentioned were worth spending more time with. Stark’s character comes off as sort of whiny, which is a contrast from the previous book. Stark was always prone to complaining, but in Kill the Dead it’s all he does. Stark redeems himself by the end of the story, and in hindsight the change in Stark is more than likely intentional, but it’s just a tad overdone.
The plot of Kill the Dead is fun and exciting. Kadrey uses a few Urban Fantasy staples, but does so in creative ways. Kadrey’s Zombies, for example, come in several varieties, ranging from the shuffling groaning kind to the chess-playing savant kind. Kill the Dead also contains angels, demons, homeland security, warrior gypsies and even a porn star. Kadrey brings all these elements together to create a truly unique universe.
I listened to Kill the Dead on audio CD by Brilliance Audio. The audiobook is voiced by MacLeod Andrews. Mr. Andrews sounds abrasive with a sarcastic edge, the perfect voice to portray Stark. However, his portrayal of Vidocq’s French accent makes him sound more mentally challenged than anything else. The other characters are fine, but none possess the personality he imbues into Stark. The audio version is worth listening to simply to hear Macleod give life to James Stark.
Kadrey has an awesome writing formula and has solidified Sandman Slim as one of my favorite fantasy characters. Fans of urban or dark fantasy should be required by law to read at least the first novel, which is the better one. Richard Kadrey is a man with a lot of talent and strange interests, and I for one am glad he has chosen to express some of them in the form of Sandman Slim.
Sandman Slim has been hired as Lucifer’s bodyguard; what a set-up! Kill the Dead is fast-paced and a bit crazy. Horror fans are more likely to enjoy this than are those who like their fantasy to be accompanied by beauty instead of violence.
PLOT SUMMARY: James Stark, a.k.a. Sandman Slim, crawled out of Hell, took bloody revenge for his girlfriend’s murder, and saved the world along the way. After that, what do you do for an encore? You take a lousy job tracking down monsters for money. It’s a depressing gig, but it pays for your beer and cigarettes. But in L.A., things can always get worse.
Like when Lucifer comes to town to supervise his movie biography and drafts Stark as his bodyguard. Sandman Slim has to swim with the human and inhuman sharks of L.A.’s underground power elite. That’s before the murders start. And before he runs into the Czech porn star who isn’t quite what she seems. Even before all those murdered people start coming back from the dead and join a zombie army that will change our world — and Stark’s — forever…
FORMAT/INFO: Kill the Dead is 434 pages long without any chapter or part breaks. Narration is in the first-person present tense, exclusively via the protagonist, James Stark, a.k.a. Sandman Slim. Kill the Dead can be read as a standalone story, but is the second Sandman Slim novel, while the open ending provides plenty of material for future sequels. October 5, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Kill the Dead via EOS.
ANALYSIS: There was a time when I used to like reading urban fantasy novels, but thanks to publishers flooding the market with second/third-rate carbon copies and authors recycling the same ideas over and over, I’ve grown weary of the whole subgenre. Even so, every once in a while an urban fantasy title comes along that really catches my eye, like last year’s Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey…
Combining the humor and accessibility of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels with the detective noir influences of the Nightside series by Simon R. Green, and the hard-boiled grittiness of Hellblazer, Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt Casebooks and Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, Sandman Slim was a fun and exciting introduction to James Stark — a nephilim (part human, part angel) who escaped after eleven years trapped in Hell to take revenge against Mason Faim, the person responsible for betraying Stark and murdering his girlfriend. Along the way, the book also introduces Stark’s impressive collection of weapons (the shape-shifting na’at, Azazel’s knife, Mason’s lighter, Hellion magic, the Room of Thirteen Doors) and an interesting supporting cast that includes a talking head in former magician, Kasabian; Stark’s friend, the 200-year-old immortal alchemist, Vidocq; Allegra, an ex-video clerk who becomes Vidocq’s apprentice; Candy, a vampire-like Jade and possible romantic interest of Stark’s; Doc Kinski, a fallen angel who provides healing for the supernatural; Mr. Muninn, a “merchant to the stars and connoisseurs of esoterica”; and Carlos, the bartender of the Bamboo House of Dolls which caters to L.A.’s supernatural underworld; not to mention Lucifer, Aelita, and Marshal Wells of the Golden Vigil. In addition to all of this, readers were also treated to a revenge-driven tale full of graphic violence, over-the-top action, creative magic, and surprising twists.
In the second Sandman Slim novel, Kill the Dead, readers can expect more of the same. More of the cocky, foul-mouthed Stark with his accompanying addictions for nicotine, booze, Aqua Regia, car theft, and smart-ass comments. More of Stark at his favorite hangouts (Max Overload, Donut Universe, the Bamboo House of Dolls, Vidocq’s apartment which was formerly where Stark and his girlfriend lived) with the same supporting cast — and a couple of new faces in Marshal Julie and Brigitte, a “Czech Gypsy porn-star zombie killer.” More of Stark wielding his favorite weapons with violent and bloody results, while acquiring some new pieces for his arsenal including the Druj Ammun, access to the Daimonion Codex (Lucifer’s “mystical database”), and the manifestation of angelic powers. And more of Stark kicking ass, cracking jokes, and getting into trouble.
The story however, is a different matter altogether. Where Sandman Slim was all about revenge and started out with a bang that really never let up until the end of the book, Kill the Dead is a much slower and more tedious affair — at least for the first two-thirds of the novel. During that time frame, readers are subjected to Stark talking a lot — to friends, strangers and readers alike – and such mundane matters as Sub Rosa politics and Stark combating money issues by working freelance for both the Golden Vigil and Lucifer, taking on menial jobs like hunting monsters, examining supernatural crime scenes, and working as Lucifer’s bodyguard. Granted, there are moments of exciting, blood-spewing violence, impassioned sex, and entertaining verbal sparring sprinkled throughout these pages, but for the most part, I had to drag myself through this portion of the novel, all the while wondering if things were ever going to get better. Fortunately, the book does improve, significantly. Around the time the zombie plot to destroy Los Angeles is in full effect, the Sandman Slim I knew and loved from the first book was back in all his cynical, ass-kicking glory. Add to that revelations about Stark’s father, one of his friends getting killed, another friend getting bitten by a zombie for which there is no cure, Stark’s angelic personality taking over his human side, some fascinating loose ends to be explored in future sequels, and plots to dethrone both God and Lucifer, and it was enough to make me forget about the novel’s laborious first two-thirds.
Writing-wise, Richard Kadrey puts together another solid performance in Kill the Dead, highlighted by energetic pacing; stylish action sequences; cool slang words — Downtown (Hell), shroud eaters (vampires), Shut Eyes (psychics), High Plains Drifters (zombies); a creative twist on zombies that includes different types of zombies (Drifters, Lacunas, Savants) and the brutal method (ripping out their spines) by which to destroy them; and accessible, pop culture-soaked figures of speech:
Know your enemy. His tactics, strengths, and weaknesses. When you do, ninety-nine percent of the time you’re going to make him squeak like a church mouse and run away like the Road Runner. Of course, if you get it wrong, you’re going to be a ten-foot banana and the guy you’re fighting will be King Kong with the munchies.
Unfortunately, Richard Kadrey’s performance is not all good. Characterization, for example, is practically non-existent, especially toward the supporting characters, which is apparent by my complete lack of care and concern when one of the characters is killed off and the lives of others are threatened. Then there’s Stark’s little identity crisis when his angel personality takes over, but his narrative voice remains largely the same. Also, Kadrey has a tendency to introduce interesting ideas like the Jackal’s Backbone or the Winter Garden without really explaining their purpose or origins. On a personal note, meanwhile, I grew tired of Stark’s incessant jokes and commentary, partly because it just doesn’t fit my view of how a cynical badass would act, making Stark seem more like an obnoxious teenager rather than a hardened killer, and partly because of the author’s overreliance on pop culture references and similes/metaphors that just aren’t very creative. Additionally, I felt Richard Kadrey dropped the ball a few times towards the end of the novel, taking the easy way out with convenient, Hollywood-esque resolutions instead of embracing the unconventional route.
CONCLUSION: Overall, Richard Kadrey’s Kill the Dead takes its sweet time getting to the good stuff, but when it does, the action is fast, furious and compelling, and will definitely satisfy fans of the first Sandman Slim novel while leaving readers already anticipating the next volume in the series. That said, if you like your urban fantasy dark and gritty, then there are much better options available than Sandman Slim, starting with Mike Carey’s superb Felix Castor novels and the awesome Joe Pitt series by Charlie Huston…
Lucifer has come to Hollywood as an advisor for a movie about his life that’s in production. With all the power struggles going on between the old Sub Rosa families, he hires Stark, a.k.a Sandman Slim, to be his bodyguard. Stark has recently been contracting for the Golden Vigil, a special department of homeland security that’s overseen by the angel Aelita and defends against God’s enemies on Earth. But between Stark’s bad attitude and Aelita’s “holier than though” one, that job isn’t working out so well. So Stark needs the money. However, as one can imagine, when working for the Devil there’s always going to be a catch. In a desperate bid to take over, somebody has set zombies loose in L.A., and Sandman Slim is the only person who can stop them.
Kadrey’s take on the Devil makes me think of the old mafia don depicted in gangster movies: a businessman who has aged very well, and who hides cleverness and fearsome power beneath a charming veneer. Lucifer is currently trying to hold on to his throne, but still wants to one day get back at God for the damnation that happened long before mankind became a player in the universal struggle between Heaven and Hell, which in Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books, isn’t necessarily the same thing as good vs. evil.
In Kill the Dead, it’s ironic that the harder Stark tries to self-improve — by not simply killing everything that presents a problem — the deeper into trouble he gets. He’s reminds me a little bit of the guy who represents mayhem in the recent Allstate insurance commercials. No matter what Stark does, calamity follows him. I think the time he spent as an assassin and gladiator in Hell, though, has conditioned him to unconsciously thrive in chaos. Plus, Stark’s ultimate goal is to kill Mason, the Sub Rosa magician who murdered Stark’s girlfriend. With vengeance as his motivation for existence, it’s a given that Stark’s life is going to be screwed up.
Richard Kadrey won me over as a fan with the first book, Sandman Slim, and I enjoyed Kill the Dead even more, which says a lot because I never had much interest in urban fantasy before. Kadrey has opened this reader’s eyes to how much fun this kind of fantasy can be.
The Sandman Slim novels are a unique combination of a supernatural thriller and a hard-boiled crime novel. There’s a lot of hard drinkin’, cigarette smokin’, sarcastic street-smart wit, and two-fisted action. Mr. Kadrey’s belief that evil is really just the ignorance or carelessness of one’s actions, rather than a universal force that opposes good, makes the perfect underlying theme for the SANDMAN SLIM novels. The hostilities between the angels and demons continues, just as it always has, with humanity stuck somewhere in the middle. I anxiously wait to read about the next battle in the third installment of Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series.
Kill the Dead, Richard Kadrey’s second Sandman Slim adventure, didn’t impress me as much as the first one did. I think I’ve hit my zombie threshold. I didn’t know I had a zombie threshold until I was about halfway through this book, but apparently I do and this book reached it.
All the things I liked about Sandman Slim are still around in Kill the Dead. James Stark, Kadrey’s punk wizard, is still punk: powerful, angry, pragmatic. When the book opens, he is killing vampires for money, paid by the Golden Vigil, a truly frightening partnership between angelic warriors and Homeland Security. Yes, that’s right, an operation that can smite you with God’s wrath, suspend habeas corpus and strangle you in bureaucratic red tape all at the same time. They are not the scariest thing walking LA’s mean streets, either. Stark is still worried about his old adversary Mason, and he is baffled by the cryptic last words of the teen cheerleader vampire he just ended.
Stark is distracted from the vampire girl’s riddle — or the strange stories of people going missing — by a visit from his old boss, Lucifer. Stark used to be an arena fighter in Hell. A human could not have survived eleven years in Hell, but Stark is only half human. His father was an angel… if, perhaps, a fallen one.
Lucifer says he has come to LA to get a movie made. It’s a biopic, his side of the story. Stark is wisely skeptical of this cover story but agrees to provide bodyguard services. Soon he is rubbing elbows with the magical aristocracy, movie moguls and ambitious actresses, and protecting Lucifer from various attempted hits.
Stark discovers that someone has a plan to release an army of zombies that has been imprisoned underneath the city for centuries, and it seems that he is the only one who can stop it. He also needs to figure out who is after Lucifer. Lucifer may be the CEO of Hell, but he is the target of a hostile takeover, and Mason, who was exiled to Hell, has allied himself with the rebels.
One of the interesting thing about Stark is that he is a hardened, angry angel-punk, and he’s also strangely vulnerable and, at times, well… almost sweet. He tricked out his closet and built a skateboard conveyance for Kasabian, his bizarre disembodied-head sidekick (who also informs on him to Lucifer). He still pines for his dead love, Alice. When the zombie attack starts, he goes out of his way to warn a counter girl at his favorite doughnut shop to go home and lock her doors. These are not inconsistencies in his character; these are the flashes of humanity that keep me reading. At times in this book, Stark’s innocence and vulnerability veer dangerously close to whininess, especially when he is talking to his friend Kinski, but then there’s a cute scene in the back of a limo when he chats — yes, chats — with Lucifer about the magical books he’s been reading lately.
The zombie plot goes on too long without that much of a payoff. During an early zombie attack, Stark is infected. If he were human, he would turn into a zombie. Because he is half-angel, his human self “dies,” but we see no change in his behavior or attitude. He seems to be irritated with humans, but Stark is always irritated with someone, so this does not make a dramatic enough difference. Along the way, while he is deciding how to combat the zombies, there seems to be a lot of talking. I was still engaged but it was hard not to skim. I was much more interested in the Lucifer plot, and the scheme of the murderous angels who are involved with the Golden Vigil.
Despite some disappointments here, Kadrey keeps delivering a quirky brand of weirdness, and Stark manages to make me care about him, so I keep reading. I will read Aloha from Hell, the third book, just to find out what happens next.
Justin, your reviews always crack me up.
Yeah, he’s pretty funny!
Awesome review!! :)
Unless an ARC comes in, I think I just might have to start this series as soon as I finish what I’m reading now.
Justin- you ever get a break in your reading schedule, you should give Monument by Ian Graham a try. I don’t think its as good as this series probably is, but the main character sounds like your kinda guy. :)
In my opinion, Sandman Slim doesn’t even come close to the awesomeness of Monument, but to be fair, the two books are really quite different. I would definitely recommend Monument though. One of the most underrated fantasy novels out there…
I will definitely add Monument to my TBR pile. I had a hard time giving a star rating to this book. I read both books back to back so the differences between were quite apparent, and I had given 4 stars to Sandman Slim. Compared to a lot of the Urban Fantasy trash that’s out there these are well above the fray. However, when compared to some of the best in the genre they just don’t quite reach that level…almost, but not quite. I think the series is capable of getting there, and Kadrey has the writing ability to do it.
I think you gave Kill the Dead a fair rating Justin. I didn’t write a full review of Sandman Slim, but if I had, I would have given it 4 Stars. I think Kill the Dead wasn’t as strong because of the weak start, but the series has the potential to be really good, and I hope the author can follow through…