I’m not sure what’s wrong with me lately. I keep finding myself reading some gloriously blasphemous works of fantasy literature. I reviewed Jesse Bullington’s The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and accepted that it could very well show up as a stain on my soul’s credit report. Now, having just finished Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, I might as well file eternal bankruptcy.
James Stark was betrayed and sent to hell for 11 years. While in Hell he learned a few things like killing, drinking heavily, and swearing like it was an Olympic sport. James Stark’s only goals are payback for his banishment, and revenge for the murder of his one true love… Anything else that happens along the way is just a bonus.
Stark’s one-track mind makes him seem a little self-centered. Combine that with his colorful vocabulary, and Stark is nearly unapproachable. On the other hand, he’s also funny, tremendously powerful, and becoming a better person despite his best efforts to the contrary. Stark grew on me, and by the end of the story I ranked him among my favorite characters in fantasy literature.
Kadrey’s writing is solid and surprisingly eloquent in its own way. You literary nerds who just spit your drink on your monitors, please clean off your screen and hear me out. Richard Kadrey has a way with words; his descriptions and images are vivid and creative and his metaphors are simultaneously both funny and accurate. For example, when Stark walks in on a dark magic ceremony, he comments:
Don’t devil worshipers have any imagination? It’s like a Hot Topic Halloween party.
Or when he tries on some Kevlar:
I’ll wear the liner under the over-coat and hope it’s not so bulky I look like a robot in a bathrobe.
In just a couple of concise sentences, Kadrey lets me know exactly what the scene looks like — and he makes me laugh. The verbiage is also very modern. It’s rife with pop-culture references and slang, so in 20 years it will feel a little dated, but who chooses a fantasy book purely based on its potential future relevance? I also didn’t mind the vulgarity, and found it quite refreshing compared to the politically-correct word choices in a lot of today’s books.
Sandman Slim hit the bull’s-eye for me. It contained humor, a gritty style, and a fast pace — everything I love about urban fantasy.
Trust me on this — Hell is a tough room.
James Stark is back and it’s time for heads to roll (literally). His “friends” managed to get him pulled into Hell and he’s spent the last 11 years entertaining Lucifer and Beelzebub in the gladiatorial arena, learning plenty of new skills (including how to speak High Hellion, which sounds a lot like barking), and acquiring a couple of useful magical objects. Now he’s crawled out of the abyss and he’s ready for revenge on those who killed his girlfriend and sent him Downtown. Fortunately he’s got a little help from a 200 year old French alchemist who’s looking for a cure for his immortality and an L.A. Goth girl who runs a video store.
Sandman Slim is a well-written and entertaining novel. What I liked best was Richard Kadrey’s use of colorful metaphors and similes:
- Aelita isn’t what I imagined an angel would look like. She’s about as ethereal as a zip gun. She walks like she’s about to call in an air strike or buy Europe. Donald Trump in drag with her enemies’ balls in a candy dish on her desk, right next to the stapler.
- Wells motions me over, squinting at me like a constipated Clint Eastwood.
- With a superhuman effort I try to push myself to my feet, but only get myself as far as propping myself on my elbows like a white-trash Sphinx.
- [Stark manages to ruin every piece of clothing he puts on:] I’m the Joseph Stalin of laundry.
Sandman Slim is written in a present-tense first person voice and I enjoyed hearing James Stark’s thoughts and, especially, his occasional Rules of Thumb:
One rule of thumb in fighting is that crazy can often overcome skill and numbers, because, while a trained fighter might actually enjoy going up against another trained fighter, no one really wants to wrestle with crazy. Crazy doesn’t know when it’s winning. And crazy doesn’t know when to stop. If you can’t pull off crazy, if, for instance, you’re handcuffed in a small van with six armed assailants, stupid is a decent substitute for crazy.
Sandman Slim was also informative. I’ve learned plenty of things that may be useful some day, like how to saw off a shotgun and how to use duct tape and cinder blocks to make a dead body sink. Also, in case I ever need to threaten to torture someone, I’ve got plenty of ideas — some of which involve the transposition of small round body parts.
There were some minor issues with the writing — a couple of mistakes (Kasabian drops the bat but then he’s still holding the bat, Stark tells Candy to meet him somewhere and wonders why she doesn’t show up in a different place, etc.). I read an advanced review copy, so I hope the editor catches these things (and the typos) before the final version comes out.
I really enjoyed Richard Kadrey’s style, but I have to say that I didn’t really enjoy the story of Sandman Slim. That’s not really Mr. Kadrey’s issue — it’s me. Mostly the problem is that I’m not much of a fan of the urban bad-ass hero who’s waging his own personal vendetta. I tried this novel, hoping it might change my mind, but it didn’t — I just found it to be ugly, coarse, and lacking in beauty (except for those wonderful metaphors). Secondly, I’m a Christian and while I don’t mind reading about people crawling out of Hell, I do have some sensitivities. For example, I feel uncomfortable with the premise that “God fucked up” which was sort of the theme of Sandman Slim.
I have no doubt that many readers will enjoy Sandman Slim a lot more than I did. I also have no doubt that I’d like to read other works by Richard Kadrey — something without the personal vendetta and God-fucked-up themes.
Stark has escaped from Hell, where he spent the last 11 years as a gladiator and assassin. He’s out for revenge, to kill the group of magicians who not only got him sent to Hell in the first place but recently murdered his girlfriend too. Stark was already somewhat of an outlaw with magical abilities before going “downtown,” but just like the prison systems on Earth, his fiery incarceration only made him tougher and more knowledgeable. He also smuggled out a couple powerful items: a magical black bone knife and a key which will transport him anywhere, from shadow to shadow, by way of the nexus of the universe, the Room of Thirteen Doors.
I haven’t had much luck finding urban fantasy that I like. So I tend to shy away from it, but when other FanLit reviewers mentioned how tough, gritty, and of full of wise-cracking dialog Sandman Slim is, I knew it was for me. I love revenge stories, and Sandman Slim is that in spades. But what really made me just have to give it a read is when some unknown hint resonated with me that this book is a lot like a cult classic, hard-boiled crime series that’s a favorite of mine. I’m talking about the Parker books by the late Robert Stark, aka Donald Westlake — the inspiration for the Mel Gibson movie Payback and a much older movie with Lee Marvin called Point Blank. It turned out that my hunch was much more than a coincidence. Kadrey directly gives nods to the Parker series with some of the character names.
Though the violent action, mean street attitude, and the revenge story echo the Parker books, Sandman Slim is not just a knock-off with a supernatural twist. Instead, Richard Kadrey does something better by creating a very original story with characters that are both interesting and darkly comical. However, Kadrey does use elements of crime noir fiction.
Hard-boiled stories take place among the criminal underworld, where everyone lives outside of the law. Well, everyone except for the cops, who act as judge and jury. But in Sandman Slim, the underworld is both a criminal and a demonic one and the cops are agents of a secret division in homeland security.
Stark, aka Sandman Slim — disappointingly, the alias is never fully explained — is a self-proclaimed monster that hunts monsters. He easily makes enemies and makes it difficult for his friends to like him. The other characters include a talking head, a centuries-old French apothecary, monsters, a hard-nosed federal agent, and a sub-culture of evil magicians (wizards).
Another thing that’s prevalent in hard-boiled fiction is the seedy neighborhoods of a city. The city itself serves as another character in the story. Every major city really does have its own personality. In the case of Sandman Slim, Los Angeles is that character. Even though I’ve never been to L.A., after reading Sandman Slim I feel like I know its underbelly like a native. In L.A., outcasts, failed actors, addicts, and, street-level criminals thrive mere blocks from millionaires, celebrities, eccentric socialites, and big-time gangsters. So it makes the perfect place for Kadrey’s angels and demons, monsters and magicians to dwell. Kadrey has such an intimate knowledge of L. A. that he makes it easy to believe that there are supernatural forces at work there.
Many may find the ideas in Sandman Slim to be uncomfortably sacrilegious. I had a strong Baptist upbringing, so I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me squirm a little. That said, charge me a heretic and burn me at the stake, because I found Kadrey’s take on Heaven, Hell and the things between just too intriguing to deny.
James Stark is the only man who has ever gone to Hell while still alive, and escaped to tell the tale. He’s back on Earth to hunt down those who sent him to Hell and kill them. Because he’s picked up a few immunities to injury during his time Down Below, where he was essentially a gladiator, he thinks that might not be too difficult a job. In fact, he takes five bullets straight to the chest in his first few hours back here, and they don’t do anything but pose a threat of eventual lead poisoning if he doesn’t get them removed.
Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim is urban fantasy with a kick to the head. Stark is the kind of anti-hero who becomes more of a hero the longer you read about him – he makes an effort not to kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it, and is even sorry that he decapitated one of his enemies and kept the guy’s head alive to be captured by another one of his enemies. Stark tells his story in a first-person narrative that never slows down, not even when he sleeps. From sending the bad guys scampering from a bar they were blackmailing to taking an angel’s sword straight to the gut, Stark is a tough guy Dashiell Hammett would recognize, if Hammett wrote about the supernatural.
Kadrey builds his alternate Los Angeles with great care. There are marvelous throwaway lines that tell you exactly what kind of world you’re in. For instance: “Yes, there are vampires. Try to keep up.” He describes his supernatural weapons with care: “My favorite weapon, a na’at, was on the ground. A na’at is sort of like a spear, but it morphs and changes into a lot more than a spear if you know how to use it right. Like everything else down there, the name is a Hellion joke. They call a na’at a ‘thorn’ because its full name, na’atzutz, is the kind of bush they used to make Christ’s crown of thorns.” (Hellions, naturally, are denizens of Hell.) His hierarchy of good guys and bad guys is a bit different from what we’ve been taught in Sunday school; angels don’t seem to be especially good, and God is apparently absent after having screwed up a few bits of creation. Humans, in fact, are nothing but accidents that God got fleetingly interested in before being distracted by something else.
One thing everyone in Kadrey’s universe seems able to agree on is that Kissi, a third kind of being after angels and humans, are bad stuff that we don’t want. But human magicians seem to be unable to stay away from them, especially Stark’s enemies, who think they see a way to use them without themselves being used. They’re wrong.
Sandman Slim throws a new idea at the reader with almost every page in an orgy of weirdness. I like that in a novel, even if it is almost exhausting to read. It would have taken fewer pages to serve the plot, and the book might have benefited by judicious editing, but that couldn’t happen without losing an idea or two or a dozen; it must have been quite a dilemma for those who worked with Kadrey to bring this book to fruition. One thing that must have gotten lost in editing, though, is how and why Stark is called Sandman Slim. That seems to just start happening at one point, and the book doesn’t explain where the nickname came from or what it means. But that’s such a minor point when the novel is moving forward at 90 miles per hour that one hopes only to find out in the next novel set in this universe.
Would James Stark, the hero of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, and Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden get along? Here’s what I think. They could drink together, but sooner or later they’d get into a fight and end up torching the neighborhood. They’re a little too different, yet too much alike.
Dresden is a rebel and an outcast. So is Stark, but he is something more — a true punk, in the 1980s Sid Vicious sense of that word. He’s something more than that, too, but I don’t want to spoil it for everyone.
Stark’s punk sensibility marinated for eleven years in Hell, where a rival magician sent Stark (still alive) when he was nineteen years old. Stark survived by becoming an arena fighter in Hell, and later a shadow assassin for one of Lucifer’s generals. Now he’s escaped. He has three magical artifacts and one simple mission: to kill the people who betrayed him and shopped him to Lucifer.
Stark’s L.A. is strange and wholly familiar at the same time. The high-gloss glamour of Rodeo Drive and the movie moguls exists one parking space away from the donut shops and taquerias, the derelict crack houses, the mostly-empty strip malls. Punks and drug addicts live in the city like coyotes. Murderous, self-righteous angels direct clandestine Homeland Security operations, and the Sub Rosa, the community of magical beings, function just slightly below the radar. It’s a town where you can buy anything and almost nothing has any value. As Stark says, “LA is just one traffic jam away from Hiroshima. God, I love this town.” He refers to Hell as “Downtown,” a nice bit of wordplay in a city that doesn’t exactly have one itself.
Stark is a product of rootless, centerless LA. He doesn’t articulate a fancy code of honor, or philosophize about magic. He’ll bulldoze Heaven to kill the folks who betrayed him, and march into Hell to save his friends. Or maybe it’s the reverse. Actually, he might do both. He is foul-mouthed, hard-boiled and funny, and he’d fit comfortably into a James Ellroy novel.
Sandman Slim drives at a hundred miles an hour from Page One — another LA characteristic. Kadrey peoples the book with fascinating, funny, frightening characters. Let’s just say that Lucifer is not the scariest thing out there.
Kadrey drops occasional details in his rush to thrust Stark into his next crisis. For instance, Allegra has a shaven head when we first meet her, but during a fight scene, a villain grabs her by the hair, just four days later. But the sheer energy and authenticity of Stark’s voice make these lapses forgivable. Of all the wonderful things here — the interesting backstory and worldview, the characters, the adrenaline-rush plot — I think Stark, the punk-gladiator and fringe-dweller-magician, is quite the best.