Review of Kadrey's Sandman Slim
When James Stark was 19 years old, he was a talented magician, in love with the beautiful Alice, and running with the wrong crowd. After a ritual gone horribly wrong (or right?) he ends up in hell. Alive and kicking, but in hell. An obvious novelty, Stark spends the next eleven years as a slave pit warrior, killing monsters left and right, and generally becoming a hellion himself. He eventually finds the magic key that gets him out of hell and back to earth. None of this is really explained, the reader learns of it through Stark's scattered flashbacks.
He's missed eleven years of current events, but is thrilled to be back on earth to track down Mason, Parker, and the rest of the guys who sent him to hell and then killed Alice. Kasabian is easy to find – the dumbest of the lot, he's been holing up in a junky video store, which while in a bad area of Los Angeles is of course surrounded by Beamers, Lexusi, and other fancy cars for Stark to steal whenever he needs to get somewhere. The manager of the video store is the beautiful Allegra, who offers to help Stark merge back into society because she thinks he's right out of prison. She helps him buy a cell phone, he tells her magic is real. Next thing we know, Allegra is apprenticing with the mysterious Dr. Kinski, alchemist extraordinaire. Stark's only goal in life is to avenge Alice's death by killing Mason very slowly.
Like leveling up in an MMORPG, as the novel progresses, the bad guys get tougher, but Stark gets stronger. Convenient how that works. Kadrey should have hired an artist and an inker, because this would have made a decent graphic novel.
Stark spends most of the next few hundred pages getting the crap beaten out of him while trying to find Mason and rest of his minions. Did I mention Angels get involved? And the Department of Homeland Security? And a brothel? And lots of porno dvds? It's not that this book is over the top, it's that this book is so over the top it that it starts to come off as rediculous. Kadrey seems to be competing with himself to see which he can do more often – remind us that Stark is beyond stronger than the strongest person ever, or that everything MacGuyer could ever need is found in the porn section of Kasabian's video store.
This is where the “revenge novel and nothing else” got most annoying for me. Stark was sent to hell during a magical ritual gone horribly wrong. What were they trying to do? Maybe it didn't go wrong, maybe Mason had planned to send him to hell? What did Mason get out of the whole thing? I want to know more about Alice. I want to know more about Kinski, I want to know more about the Jades and all the other creatures in this dark fantasy world. I want to know how Stark managed to trick and kill the Devil's generals and I want to know how he got the key to the Room of Thirteen Doors and embed it in his own body. Kadrey had every opportunity to flesh out his characters, story, and universe by giving the reader some information about how this whole disaster started, but all he could was give Stark some weapons and start him running. Makes me wonder if this is the second book in a series, and I missed the first one?
I probably shouldn't have finished this book. The more I read it, the angrier it made me. It made me angry that Kadrey would make Stark so naïve and stupid. It made me angry that the most interesting character, Kinski, got minimal screen time, and that other characters were so undeveloped as to be embarrasing. It made me angry that reading this made me feel like a prude, as I'd reached my limit of violence, carjacking, blow job jokes and video store porn by page 75. It made me angry that everytime I put the book down I felt the need to bath in Clorox.
All that said, I'm sure this novel has some redeeming points. I picked up a ton of great insults that I hope never to have the opportunity to use. Change the names and place, and you'd have a great novel adaptation of your favorite first person shooter video game. I hope when they make the movie Kinski is played by Peter Stormare and Aelita is played by Tinda Swinton.