Strippable Cover Review: The Sandman Slim Trilogy

Reviewing is said to be an easy job, but there are problems. You might have an issue with story and find it difficult to put into words. Conversely, there might be so much to explain that you can’t really get to the process of actually reviewing without six paragraphs of backstory first. Or in some cases, you might receive an advance copy and find yourself sitting on something you can’t review because, hey, it hasn’t been published yet.

This is not a real problem, but it is still one I found myself facing with these books. I wanted to review them as a trilogy, so I was forced to wait.

But no more. Richard Kadrey has finished up his (first) Sandman Slim saga with a bang, so here we go with a review of all three of these funny, violent, hellish, fantastic novels. Pull up a pile of garbage and sit down, this is going to be dirty.

(NOTE: Reviews for the second novel may contain minor plot details of the first, and the same with the third. No major spoilers, but this is a series, and it does build from one book to the next.)

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Published August 2009

We meet the titular hero as he rolls off a pile of burning garbage in a Hollywood cemetery. James Stark (named for one of Donald Westlake’s pseudonyms, specifically the one he used to write noir) is not a nice person. He’s a pile of walking scar tissue, freshly out of Hell, and he’s looking for the men who sent him there and killed his girlfriend.

This might sound like the set-up for a western, but in this case, we’re referring to the literal Hell. Stark, or as he was known down under, Sandman Slim, was set up by his group of wizard friends at age 19, and spent years down there alive, fighting in the Devil’s arena and becoming harder and harder to kill. The Sub Rosa, the secret society of magic users hiding just out of sight, had better beware.

Kadrey immediately gets our attention and, like the novels whose style he’s emulating, never lets up. I mean this literally; there are no chapter breaks in any of these books. The story flows out in a flawless 400 page punch to the gut. Some may find this difficult, as it doesn’t leave you any breathing room, but if you have an afternoon available, it’s easy enough to finish one in a day.

The characters are well done. Apart from rooming with a severed head, Stark is friends with an ancient alchemist and Candy, a Jade, a woman that makes normal vampires look like male mosquitoes. There’s also an extremely arrogant angel and a group of God’s castoffs that aren’t too happy about their lot in life. This seems like a lot of things to keep track of but Kadrey handles it deftly, with relationships built and established through well written dialogue. And no one is better written than Sandman Slim himself.

Stark is, frankly, an unpleasant character. He’s rude, he’s ugly and his usual response to adversity is hair trigger violence, often involving his na’at, a deliciously evil cross between a bullwhip, staff and pile of rusty knives. Most novels with such narrators are difficult to get through. Thankfully, Kadrey has made Stark funny. The darkness that Stark is dealing with is balanced with a gallows humor (the exchanges between Stark and his aforementioned severed-head roommate, the majority of the final scene) that keeps things likeable.

Sandman Slim is everything that neo-noir should be. While these things have been done with a supernatural angle before, Kadrey has stepped up and made the genre his own through excellent use of unique characters, did-they-say-that humor, loads of violence and a story that you can’t walk away from.

Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey

Published October 2010

Though it may start out with the single best opening paragraph of any novel written in this, or any other, century, Kill The Dead stands as the weakest of the three.

All of the elements of greatness are here. We get an expansion of Stark’s use of magic, some new and interesting characters (including a more starring role for Lucifer), evenhanded humor and violence, and one of the best takes on zombies I’ve read in a while. So where does it fall down?

First love is difficult to write.

While the first novel had plenty of female characters, none of them were really a love interest. Sure, there was Alice, his dead girlfriend, but she felt more like a macguffin or deus ex machina. With her for the most part out of the picture, Stark meets a pornstar cum zombie-killer and falls in lust. The character is certainly interesting enough, but Kadrey is not invested in it. Once you’ve read the third novel, it becomes clear why, but on a first reading I found myself wondering what the point was.

However, Kadrey introduces more than enough brilliance. With a return to western lingo, he brings in the ‘high plains drifters’ as zombies are called. Picking and choosing his zombie, vampire and even werewolf lore, he brings us a race of creatures that, while definitely zombies, are something new and special. The payoff, involving one Johnny Thunders, is fantastic.

A major character development is revealed about midway through the novel. While a good twist, it isn’t accomplished smoothly. Without spoiling too much, we now have two voices to deal with from one character and Kadrey doesn’t give us an easy way to differentiate them. At times, good and bad are too similar to know who is speaking. A minor but telling flaw that he usually tries to clarify through other narration, this sometimes breaks up the flow too much.

The novel has a touch of middle-brother-syndrome. There are a few moments when you can tell that something is clearly setting up for the third book, though thankfully, Kadrey is pretty straightforward about it. While it may not be as good as the first one, there’s no way you’re stopping now.

Aloha from Hell by Richard Kadrey

Published October 18, 2011

So the final novel. The big showdown. The trip downstairs.

Starting off with some recreational breaking and entering, flesh-searing violence and an invitation that can’t be refused, Kadrey’s third Sandman Slim novel never lets up. With a cast of characters including some we thought dead, God, Lucifer, and a return to Hell, how could it?

Let it be said now: This is one of the must unique visions of Hell it has been my pleasure to encounter in literature. While that may seem like an odd statement, think about it: most hellscapes borrow heavily from either Greek mythology, Dante, or Judeo-Christian mythology. And while this does use elements of those, it adds something new. Hell is what you bring with you, and in Stark’s case?

Hell is LA.

Not to ignore the other side of the coin, Kadrey takes the idea of God and puts his stamp on it. If you’ve made it this far, you’re unlikely to be offended, so odds are you’ll enjoy where he’s taking you.

This time around, we’re given a relationship done right. A plot point that I had been hoping for since book one is resolved and in such a bed-breaking, hotel destroying fashion that it is obvious this is where Kadrey has been wanting to head all along. Stark finally seems a bit more human, and that becomes the problem when he has to get back into Hell to finish up something he thought he’d taken care of.

The hellscape, as I said before, is brilliant. Some of the elements that make it up are not. A character that we as readers are pretty clear on from the beginning somehow slips under Stark’s radar. While for the sake of the story it works, even considering how much he’s changed since the first book, it is hard to believe.

Kadrey shines when he’s writing with a new idea, and this novel is full of them. From asking for help from a junk-food addicted spirit of the road to the method used to get back into Hell, Aloha is made of greatness. While some of the Underworld sections dragged, overall we get Stark in his element: killing, double-crossing and being a sarcastic, filthy jerk.

Which is just how we love him.

Posted on October 20, 2011 at 21:05 by Lincoln Eddy · Permalink
In: Books, Reviews · Tagged with: , , , ,