We’re reading SANDMAN SLIM and KILL THE DEAD by Richard Kadrey

21 Jun

Keith Brooke judges a book by its cover, and gets away with it.

Harper Voyager, PPB £7.99

You know that thing about never judging a book by its cover? Who are we kidding? We all do it. Particularly when you find two books like these, where the packaging is all part of the, well, package.

The covers are like old-fashioned movie posters with a lovely, tactile, matt finish. Rather than merely presenting the author’s name, the cover proclaims, “Harper Voyager proudly presents a novel by Richard Kadrey.” There’s a “Restricted” badge warning that the book “contains hell-fire, gun fire & all manner of ass-kicking action”. It’s very nicely done, and bound to appeal to any self-respecting book fetishist/collector. These books look seriously cool.

Both novels have front-cover quotes from Charlaine Harris, so we know we’re squarely in supernatural smart-ass urban fantasy-land. There will undoubtedly be vampires and/or werewolves and/or zombies here, served up with plenty of violence and wisecracks.

But then, just how many urban fantasy True Blood derivatives get promotional puffs from the likes of William Gibson and Cory Doctorow? With backers like that you’d expect a book not just to look cool, but to actually be cool.

Hang on a minute… what was that name again? Kadrey. Richard Kadrey. The same guy who wrote some of the most cutting-edge short SF of the 1980s. The cyberpunk’s cyberpunk. That’s more than enough to mark these books out as anything but bandwagon urban fantasy.

Kadrey’s written a few of these Sandman Slim books, with the first one published in 2009, and it’s good to see an author of Kadrey’s pedigree getting repackaged. The prose is slick and clever, its sharp humour laced with a dark edge. And the pace is relentless: these are the kind of books the term “page-turner” could have been coined for. The first, Sandman Slim, opens with the eponymous protagonist coming round on a garbage fire, fresh out of eleven years in Hell. Literally. Eleven years of torment and torture during which he’s learned one very important thing: he is remarkably difficult to kill. Not a bad talent to have when you’re just back in the land of the living and mixing with some extremely shady – and dangerous – types. Barely twenty pages in Sam’s taken five bullets in the chest which, he points out, completely ruins his moment.

Foremost on his agenda is revenge on his former acquaintances who clubbed together to consign him to Hell – and, as he discovers, murdered his girlfriend into the bargain. Kadrey’s canvas expands beyond this LA-set personal vendetta when Slim finds himself at the centre of a Heavenly and Hell-ly (there really should be such a word, but it just doesn’t look right) conflict where everything (everything) is at stake.

In the follow-up, Kill the Dead, Sandman Slim has taken a dead-end job tracking down monsters for money until one day Lucifer shows up to supervise a movie of his life story and recruits Slim as his bodyguard. Things are slower in this sequel, but Slim is the same smart-mouthing, low-life, hard-hitting anti-hero we’ve come to know.

While there’s continuity here with his other works – the LA low-life backdrop, the gritty, hard-boiled atmosphere, the violence and the intelligent edge to everything – for me, I’d have preferred it if Kadrey had followed a different direction than this. Superbly as he handles the fantasy elements here, it’s hard for work like this to stand out as anything other than smart entertainment.

Still, it’s not my call. These books stand out in a tired, over-saturated field – and did I mention how cool they look?

Also on the blog: Keith Brooke enjoys love in a cold climate.

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