I was just complaining about unoriginal urban fantasy when Sandman Slim came along to show me it is possible to do UF right. Kadrey’s writing manages to rope me in despite lukewarm genre interest in angel-demon based urban fantasy. The plot sounds unexceptional enough: Richard Stark, the ultimate noir anti-hero, has gone to Hell and back. He’s now freelancing for Lucifer, as well as the competition, an arch-angel working with the government. The feds want his input on a murder scene, while Lucifer is looking for a bodyguard during a movie promotion. That’s just to make ends meet; what he really prefers to do is have a smoke and a brew at Bamboo House of Dolls, a local dive bar that’s recently “cleaned up the bathrooms so they’re a little less like a bus station.” Although apparently a simple premise, the story soon goes off path, involving a number of mystery and action elements both traditional and surreal.
Characters are broadly drawn, but have a tinge of familiar emotional realism that allows the reader to connect. Stark’s been stuck in self-pity and a bit of an existential crisis since he accomplished his mission of revenge in the first book. His sidekick is a duplicitous cyborg and the love interest a porn-star costarring in Lucifer’s movie as Eve, so clearly, Kadrey isn’t taking himself or his characters too seriously. I found myself most interested in the portrayal of Lucifer, which aimed high, giving him a mortal coil weariness and exploitative mindset instead of truly evil. In contrast with the first book, Stark develops some welcomed coping skills and moves beyond his apparent death-wish.
Kadrey writes in short, brutal sentences that drive the straight-forward action of the narrator with little flourish. They’re full of impact, clearly delineated images in black and white. Somehow, despite the spare writing, he manages to transcend the structure with analogies that elevates beyond mere snark:
“Most people think being a doctor is a big deal, but Kinski used to be an archangel, so for him, being a doctor is sort of like flipping burgers at McDonald’s after you were president.”
“The corner of Alameda and East Sixth is so boring and anonymous it’s amazing it’s allowed on maps. Warehouses, metal fences, dusty trucks, and a handful of beat-up trees that look like they’re on parole from tree jail.”
“Whiskey doesn’t mix well with toothpaste, but I already filled the glass, and once whiskey’s been let loose you have to deal with it, like love or a rabid dog.”
Then he takes it to surreal:
“‘Let me make sure I have this straight. The cavalry just now rode into town and it’s a Czech Gypsy porn-star zombie killer. Have I got that right?’…
‘Forgive me. I didn’t think my life would seem so strange to Lucifer’s alcoholic cowboy assassin.'”
Then there were the laugh-out-loud bits. He truly made me laugh with the galvanize-the-minion speech:
and his musings on zombies:
“It would suck to be killed and reanimated while wearing corporate antennae. Though, it wouldn’t be as bad as reanimating dressed like a crab or a taco because you were pimping a new restaurant when you died.”
And then there were the moments of sincere emotional truth:
“These are the good and righteous people who sat on their fat assess and let Mason and Parker murder Alice and send me to Hell. And then they let him waltz away. I might not have been a good guy before, but I loved someone and I wasn’t broken into a million little pieces.”
Few and far between, they nonetheless help it move beyond simple action flick into something just a little more profound. Overall, a fast roller-coaster ride with a decent emotional pay-off.