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Monday, November 15, 2010

“Kill the Dead” by Richard Kadrey (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Richard Kadrey Website
Order “Kill the DeadHERE
Browse Inside HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “Sandman Slim

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Richard Kadrey is the author of over fifty short stories, a small number of non-fiction books, and five novels including Metrophage, Butcher Bird and Sandman Slim. He has written and spoken about art, culture and technology for Wired, The San Francisco Chronicle, Discovery Online, The Site, SXSW, and Wired for Sex on the G4 cable network. He is also a fetish photographer. Kill the Dead is his second Sandman Slim novel.

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, Vidoq’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 End is a much slower and 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) in 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 weren’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...

2 comments:

redhead said...

you were able to get past the "unfortunatelies" - bad characterization, uncreative metaphors, interesting things that never get a second glance, etc.

i wasn't able to get past that stuff in the first novel.

Kadrey really does have a love for pr0n stars and pr0n shops, doesn't he?

Robert said...

Well, I've read some really bad urban fantasy novels in the past few years, so compared to those, the Sandman Slim novels have a lot of redeeming qualities despite the various issues I had with the books. You're right though...Kadrey does seem to have a thing for porn ;)

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