Book Review: Sandman Slim / Author: Richard Kadrey / Publisher: Harper Voyager / Release Date: June 7th
We Brits have yet to play catch-up with American author Richard Kadrey and his novels featuring James Stark, aka Sandman Slim. But with three titles of what is eventually to be a six part series being released in the UK this summer, all that is about to change, and before long we're sure to be filing his name alongside those of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore under Modern Masters of Dark, Mordant Fantasy.
In this first book Stark finds himself back in Los Angeles looking for vengeance and a new pair of jeans. His current pair is understandably crispy as he's just escaped from Hell, where he's sojourned for eleven years, having been sent there, still very much alive, by some double-crossing magicians, who have also murdered his girlfriend Alice.
An object of curiosity Downside (as he euphemistically refers to the nether regions), Stark has survived initially by battling hellspawn in a gladiatorial arena, then by serving as a hitman for one of Lucifer's generals. These trials have turned him into a very tough nut to crack, but, as you would expect, they've done nothing for his manners. He's rude, cynical, sarcastic and prone to breaking things.
Stark holes up over a video store and – with regular forays to soak up Jack at Bamboo House of Dolls, “LA's greatest and only punk-tiki club” – goes about tracking down his betrayers. But he quickly draws the attention of “the devil's bully boys and God's Pinkertons”, and he learns that there is more at stake than his personal vengeance.
There unfolds a workmanlike plot which should translate well to the big screen when the novel gets made into a movie (one's in development as we speak). But what really distinguishes Sandman Slim – the reason why you'll recommend this book to your friends – is the quality of the writing, the colourful cast of characters and the brilliance of some of Kadrey's mythological conceits.
Kadrey is master of a hardboiled style laced with one-liners and gutter poetry. His characters, and the situations they find themselves in, are of a piece with his prose, oozing absurdist humour and jaundiced observations. And it's all spiced with some great running gags, such as the magical (and foul-mouthed) talking head living in Stark's closet: when Stark complains that he misses his dead girlfriend, the head's snappy comeback is, “I miss my balls.”
There are also blade-wielding Gothic Lolitas, shaven-headed neo-fascists and a supercilious angel who flies into a murderous rage whenever she's exposed to Stark's withering sarcasm. But just as striking as this seedy cavalcade are the fantastical elements of the story. These invariably have an impressive sense of authenticity, whether it is the key embedded in Stark's heart which enables him to travel anywhere in the universe (he prefers boosting cars because it makes him feel normal,) or the discovery that Hell has the best cigarettes (they're called Maledictions, and they taste like “a tire fire in a candy factory next door to a strip club.”)
The result is urban fantasy with the sharpest and blackest of edges, up there with Jamie Delano's wonderful, biting scripts for Hellblazer. With the publication of this novel, and the next two in the series, Kill the Dead and Aloha from Hell, due out in Britain very soon, this is bound to be a breakout summer for Richard Kadrey. And Sandman Slim? Well, he'll be a name to conjure with.