book review: sandman slim

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (2009)

I’m worried that I’m about to sound like a broken record, but I’m not going to let that stop me.  Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is the first novel in an urban fantasy series.  Yes, another first novel in a series.  If you haven’t caught on yet, I like serial fiction.  When I finished this book I looked up when it was published.  When I learned that it was published in 2009, I wondered how it was that I hadn’t heard of this series before.  I’m glad I found it.

Sandman Slim follows the story of James Stark.  For the last eleven years, he has been in Hell, sent there by friend turned enemy Mason Faim.  Stark and Mason are magicians, and it is through a magic ritual that Mason sent Stark to Hell eleven years ago.  Learning of the recent murder of his girlfriend, Alice, Stark resolves to escape from Hell and return to take vengeance against Mason and the rest of the Circle that helped send Stark away years ago.  Thus, the novel follows your basic revenge plot pattern; although the plot is familiar, it’s not stale or predictable or like every other revenge plot that some series begin with.  Kadrey gives readers something familiar, but he doesn’t stop there.

One of the things that made me pick this book up and give it a try was that the back cover said it was in the noir tradition, and that’s a description I would agree with.  The story is told in first-person, and so we follow Stark through the whole novel and only know what he knows, and only when he knows it.  Stark narrates in present tense, which is something of a shock when you start reading, but it never turns into a distraction and after a while you’re simply used to it.  This device makes the story feel like it is happening now, right there and then.  The first-person narrative style is a great choice for this novel because it allows readers to see all the different sides of Stark, from his reflections on his experiences in Hell and how they changed him to his feelings for Alice, which show why he is so motivated to avenge her death and won’t stop until he has succeeded.  Stark is an engaging and compelling narrator and character, and one of the novel’s strengths is that the story stays with him the entire time.  He is always on stage, and his narration makes it hard to look away.

Like a lot of first novels in a series, the supporting characters must be introduced and their relationships with the protagonist have to be fleshed out.  Kadrey has surrounded Stark with a (mostly) strong supporting cast.  Each of the supporting characters is different, and perhaps with the exception of Medea Bava, none seems cliché or just another example of a specific character type.  The strongest of the cast are Vidocq, a Frenchman who achieved immortality seemingly by accident, Carlos, owner of a bar called Bamboo House of Dolls, Doc Kinski, who heals Stark’s injuries and whose true identity and nature puzzles Stark (this is revealed at the end of the novel), Candy, a “Jade” who is in a kind of twelve-step program with Kinski to keep her from preying upon humans, and Muninn, a kind of collector or procurer of things for his clients.  These are the strongest supporting characters because they are interesting in themselves and they also highlight and emphasize different parts of Stark’s character.  As a reader, I found myself wanting to know more about each of them and hoping that they would make it out alive and become recurring characters.  I imagine that other characters introduced here will also make appearances from time to time as the series progresses—such as Aelita, an angel and Wells, an agent with Homeland Security—and it’s not revealing too much to say that Lucifer makes an appearance as well.  So I have to say that the major and minor characters in the novel add depth and interest to the story.

As I have said elsewhere, the first book in a series should make readers want to pick up the second book, and Sandman Slim definitely succeeds in achieving that purpose.  Halfway through the book I was purchasing the next book in the series.  I was completely drawn into the world that Kadrey builds and the way he characterizes Los Angeles in the style of noir detective fiction, portraying the underbelly of the city that is rife with corruption and crime, betrayal is a given because most of the individuals within this world have no sense of loyalty or community, and beautiful surfaces hide ugliness and decay.  One of the things Kadrey does well is place his protagonist in the in-between space, making him morally ambiguous as well as ostracizing Stark from any place where he might feel he belongs.  This reinforces Stark’s isolated position and loner status, but it is from this position that he draws strength and the wherewithal to get the job done.  Like so many hardboiled detectives, Stark has his own code of ethics.  They aren’t traditional or what most would consider moral or even “right”, but he has his code and he stands by it.  All of these things—the first-person narration, the supporting cast of characters, and the convincing fictional world—make this novel succeed and give me hope that the next novels will build on the strengths of Sandman Slim.

I have had a difficult time finishing novels lately because so much of what I start is all the same and I quickly lose interest.  That was definitely not the case with Sandman Slim.  I was drawn in from the beginning and kept turning the pages.  I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and noir detective fiction and to anyone who is looking for a new series to sample.

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