Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim brought a viciously dark sensibility to the new wave of noir urban fantasy. But with the hilarious second book, Kill The Dead, the series proves it belongs up there with Dresden Files and Felix Castor novels.
Minor spoilers ahead...
First of all, I should apologize. I read Kill The Dead back in May, when I got an early review copy, and it's a bit hazy in my memory. Which means this will be a shorter than usual book review, but also greatly reduces the risk of spoilers. So there's that.
It would be hard to spoil the plot of Kill The Dead in any case — it's even more of a whirlwind than Kadrey's first book. There are so many subplots, it feels at time like seven or eight novels jammed into one — but luckily, they're seven or eight highly entertaining novels, and the main character, Stark, and the setting — a seedy, horrifyingly decadent Los Angeles — hold everything together incredibly well. Really, these novels often feel as though they're more about Starks' dysfunctional relationship with his crappy hometown than about any of the other characters or situations — Stark's loathing for L.A. and everything it stands for never stops being entertaining.
But luckily, there is a main plot that plays nicely to the theme of L.A.'s oppressive horribleness. Lucifer, Stark's sometime benefactor (and, he suspects, his real father) is visiting, so he can supervise a new biopic of himself. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of Hollywood people whose souls belong to Satan, and they're getting together to make a sympathetic movie about his life. While Satan's in town, he wants Stark to be his bodyguard — more for show than for actual protection, he claims. Of course, almost nothing that Satan says about his visit and why he wants Stark as his bodyguard turns out to be true — he's not the Prince of Lies for nothing.
The passages where Stark and Satan are swanning around L.A. together, or hanging out in Lucifer's exclusive penthouse hotel suite, make for some of the best supernatural buddy comedy ever created. Their dynamic is a weird mixture of mentor/student, untrustworthy allies, and the only two people who see through most of the losers and monsters around them. Their dialog crackles nicely, like when Lucifer encourages Stark to start thinking things through more, and then later admits, "I liked you better when you just killed things." To which Stark replies, "So did I."
There are a ton of other things happening in this book, including a rich asshole who dies in an apparent autoerotic ritual, and a group of rich kids who are becoming something inhuman and incredibly codependent, and a type of zombie that's not supposed to exist, and a Czech porn star who turns out to have supernatural powers of her own AND is a monster hunter, and then there's the small matter of a zombie army. It's all a whirl of craziness and pop-culture insanity, and you can pretty much inhale it like candy-scented freon.
And this is that rare sequel that's actually better than the first book (which was plenty great) and manages to take several leaps forward in ways that make the main character seem a lot more fascinating than the first time around. Stark, in the second volume, faces more of an identity crisis than he did when he'd just crawled out of Hell for the first time. His horrible scars from the pit are actually healing, and he's becoming something closer to a normal human again — which horrifies and upsets him. But he also gets more in touch with his angelic heritage, and comes closer to becoming a full-fledged angel, which also turns out to be horrifying in its own way. By the time this book is over, Stark has made some defining decisions, and discovered some new truths about who he is and who his father was. There's no second-book wheel-spinning here.
And like I said, Stark's relationship with L.A. — as someone who was very comfortable in Hell — gets more amusing as it goes along, with the snark levels going up on a fairly steady basis. The writing is just as zingy and nasty as it was in the first book, like in this passage where Stark is chasing a teenage girl vampire who's on fire:
Vampires don't scream like regular humans. I don't know how they scream at all without lungs, but when they let loose, it's like a runaway train meets the screech of a million fighting cats. You feel it in your kidneys and bones. Tourists pee and puke at the sound. Fuck 'em. Eleanor still isn't going down. And the fire is starting to spread. Grease on the grills of nearby food stalls starts going up. A propane tank blows, setting off the sprinkler system. When I look back, Eleanor is sprinting out of the market back onto Broadway, still covered in flames.
Chasing a burning girl down a city street is a lot harder than it sounds. Civillians tend to stop and stare and this turns them into human bowling pins. Slow, whiny bowling pins. You'd think that on some basic animal level they'd want to get the hell out of the way of a burning schoolgirl screaming loud enough to crack store windows and the stupid son of a bitch chasing her. Not that I'm doing this for them. I'm doing this for the money, but they still stand to benefit from it.
When Eleanor runs across Fifth Street she isn't burning anymore. She's a black beef-jerky Barbie doll running on charred stick insect legs.
You gotta love writing like that.
And as with the first book, part of the tormented relationship with L.A. has to do with the layers of privilege — the ways in which some people are non-people, and others belong to the elite, especially the magical social club known as the Sub Rosa. Rubbing elbows with Hollywood scumbags working on the Lucifer biopic, and dealing with the weird schemes of the super-rich to live forever at the expense of their humanity give Stark an excellent opportunity to pass judgment on his social betters. Before slinking back to his own world of dive bars, donuts, monsters, and his friend the severed head.
Kill The Dead stands on its own remarkably well, although it helps to have read the first book. But enough hints are dropped about strange goings on in Hell, and the weird developments in Hellion politics, that you're left dying to know what happens in the third book. Which, if the trend continues, will probably make you die laughing and freak you out with its extreme, so-wrong-it's-right horror.
Kill The Dead comes out next Tuesday.