Richard Kadrey was at the vanguard of the noir-tinged cyberpunk back in the day, so it's only fitting he's helping to shape noir's next frontier, urban fantasy. His novel Sandman Slim brings Hellspawn and trash magic to L.A. Spoilers below...
Sandman Slim follows the adventures of Jimmy, aka Stark, aka Sandman Slim, who was dragged down to Hell as a cocky teenager and somehow survived for eleven years, before busting out. The only person he cared about is dead, and he's out for revenge — and he doesn't really care what he has to break to get it. Along the way, he gets dragged deeper and deeper into the politics of the L.A. magic scene, the ongoing feud between Hell's generals, the schemes of angels, Homeland Security, and the decadent plans of L.A.'s filthy rich magic users.
As someone who's read every novel by Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Richard Stark/Donald Westlake and Ross McDonald at least once, I found the frothiness and nihilism of the novel instantly appealing. Here's one especially Spillane-esque section, from towards the end of the book:
There's only one problem with L.A.
L.A. is what happens when a bunch of Lovecraftian elder gods and porn starlets spend a weekend locked up in the Chateau Marmont snorting lines of crank off Jim Morrison's bones. If the Viagra and illegal Traci Lords videos don't get you going, then the Japanese tentacle porn will...
L.A. is all assholes and angels, bloodsuckers and trust-fund satanists, black magic and movie moguls with more bodies buried under the house than John Wayne Gacy.
There are more surveillance camersa and razor wire here than around the pope. L.A. is one traffic jam from going completely Hiroshima.
God, I love this town.
In another section, Stark visits a house full of rich magician assholes and scenesters, and describes them using timeless phrases like "They shit cancer."
Another crucial ingredient in the noir formula, a massive cast of corrupt day-players, each with his/her own agenda and hypocrisies, also manifests pretty well in the book. It takes place in a universe that will seem familiar to anyone who's watched Supernatural or read any of a dozen other dark urban fantasy novels set in a vaguely Judeo-Christian universe. Angels are dicks, demons are pretty nasty, and the world is full of monsters of various stripes — including humans, who are usually just out for their own gain.
But Kadrey also laces his novel's set-up with a fair amount of wish-fulfillment: Besides having survived a long stint in Hell and returned to talk about it, Stark is also almost impossible to kill thanks to a Nietzschean "whatever doesn't kill me" type thing. Early on in the book, he gets shot multiple times, and the bullets only cause him a bit of discomfort. He's got a magic knife that can cut anything and start any car, and a magic key that can transport him anywhere, including Heaven or Hell. And a Veritas, a kind of magic eight-ball that answers questions truthfully, but snarkily. Oh, and he knows special Hell magic that nobody else on Earth knows. So he gets to have the perfect heroic combination — he's miserable and filled with self-loathing and bitterness, but he also has a toychest full of awesomeness that most people would kill their extended family for.
In other words, it's the perfect escapist storyline — for some reason, escapism actually works better with a permanently grim and/or depressed hero. Just look at Batman.
Oh, the other thing about Sandman Slim is that it's frequently side-splittingly funny. Stark has sworn to kill all of the people who sent him to Hell and had a hand in killing his girlfriend. But the first co-conspirator he catches up with is Kasabian, who was sort of a pathetic lapdog back then and has now been consigned to running a video store in a crappy neighborhood. Kasabian shoots Stark, who decapitates him in turn. But Kasabian doesn't die (magic knife, remember) and Kasabian's disembodied head sits on a shelf for much of the rest of the novel, commenting on the action and begging for cigarettes. The whole book is like that — gruesome slapstick mixed with down-and-dirty Hammett-esque mayhem and double-dealing.
The whole thing reminded me somewhat of a slightly darker, cleverer version of Monster by A. Lee Martinez, the last book about a semi-human monster who defends the world from other monsters that I read. Where Sandman Slim has a jump on Monster is in its hero, who is both more tormented and more sympathetic than Monster's sad-sack protagonist.
Sandman Slim's main drawback is its plot, which doesn't bear much examination — about halfway, or maybe two thirds of the way, through the book, the exposition starts getting thicker and thicker, and various characters pop up to explain stuff, and then other characters jump in to explain those explanations. Soon enough, the simple tale of a horrendously scarred bastard who crawled out of Hell to kill a bunch of people who deserved it gets more and more muddled with a lot of other stuff. It sort of overpowers the fun revenge rampage you've been primed for since the start of the book — but the good news is, there's still plenty of death, destruction and despair to go around, and the book's final big action set pieces are a lot of fun. It's easy to see why people were talking about it at Comic Con.
All in all, Sandman Slim brings a pleasingly loathesome L.A. vibe to its tale of Hell's inmate's progress. As you'd hope for a novel in the "urban fantasy" genre, the city itself is one of the novel's main characters, teeming with crack dealers and Brad Pitt lookalikes and neo-Nazis — oh, and angels and demons and assorted other nasties. If you've been hoping someone would bring the full-strength SoCal toxic waste to the urban fantasy game, then Sandman Slim is your poison.
Allegedly, this book actually came out in June or July, even though my review copy says August. Which is why we only just got around to reviewing it. Anyway, it's out now: [Amazon]