What do you get when you combine the genres of hard-boiled detective noir, spaghetti-western and urban fantasy set in L.A.? You get Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey.
This book was recommended to me by my friend Quentin, and my fiancé had also mentioned to me that she had read a promising review of the novel. Intrigued, I read through the first few pages at the bookstore, which involved the protagonist’s return from Hell upon a pile of flaming garbage, and I was immediately hooked.
Stark, the protagonist, is a dirty punk magician that was betrayed by his buddies and sent to Hell while he was still alive. The residents of his new home were so amused by him that they had him fight unholy creatures and demons in an arena, gladiator-style. He very quickly became “tough to kill”, and graduated to working as a hitman for one of Lucifer’s generals. Now, he’s escaped, and he’s back to take vengeance on the bastards that sent him to Hell in the first place. It’s a gritty, violent story, featuring an amoral protagonist most easily recognized by his multitude of scars and his tendency to inadvertently destroy his own clothing.
Things are not all joyous though, as the book does suffer from some issues that I would normally consider fatal for a fantasy, such as not having any consistent framework of rules for the magic that appears in the story. The explanations given for it are vague at best, and half of the time, the cosmology is dropped in as an afterthought, while the other half of the time the exposition is completely unnecessary, serving only to set up the world for an apparent sequel. The latter issue is a bit annoying, but there is a certain adrenaline-infused momentum to the story that makes it easy to ignore the former and just go along for the ride. In the end, I didn’t mind the lack of these details much because it’s pretty clear that Stark doesn’t care much about the rules or abstract concepts and his murderous single-mindedness makes it pretty hard to argue with him.
Regarding the cosmology, I have to admit that I was fairly sure that I was going to be disappointed by this aspect of the novel. The whole Judeo-Christian war between Heaven and Hell with mankind caught in the crossfire has been done a heck of a lot in fiction, and in most cases, it has gotten to be a bit boring. I was worried that the same would happen in Sandman Slim, and that I would be rolling my eyes during the climax of the book. I think Kadrey must have been aware by this danger, which is why he ensures that Stark makes clear that he does not care about the ongoing war across the planes. His protagonist’s obsession with revenge and stubborn refusal to take interest in the overall conflict, except as a means to an end, means that the reader doesn’t spend a whole lot of time caring about it either. This was a really smart move, because by the end of the book, I was not thinking about the fate of the world, I was worried about whether Stark was going to catch up with his enemies and get the brutal, messy revenge of his dreams.
Ultimately, my review of the book boils down to the fact that Sandman Slim is a hell of a lot of fun, with some great action and a gritty thug of a hero that wants none of your pity, but earns it nonetheless. It’s a quick read, with some great lines, and enough Tom Waits references that you’ll be ready to pour yourself some whisky and listen to Alice, Rain Dogs and Mule Variations all over again, though not necessarily in that order. If you are craving an entertaining, moody and dark dance with the supernatural, Kadrey’s Sandman Slim is certain to satisfy your hunger.