Retro Book Review: Sandman Slim

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Voyager
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061714305
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061714306

Summary: James Stark was having a pretty bad day, and then he went to Hell. After 11 years in the Pit, fighting in gladiatorial games and learning all sorts of nasty tricks, Stark has earned himself the nickname Sandman Slim: the scariest hitman in Hell.

Now, he’s clawed his way out of the Perdition; he’s pissed off and looking for a little payback against the guys that sent him Downtown and murdered his girl, Alice. But his path to vengeance is blocked by Heaven and Hell. There’s something outside the balance of Light and Darkness that threatens to unravel all creation, and the powers that be need Sandman Slim’s unique skill set to stop the end of everything. Resurrection sucks. Saving the world is worse.

“When you jump off a cliff, is it better to land on jagged rocks or burning lava? I know this one. The answer is obvious: It doesn’t matter where you land. You just jumped off a cliff.”

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is an urban fantasy that breaks the mold for the genre. Part urban fantasy, part hard-boiled noir, the novel takes place in present day Los Angeles and Kadrey writes about the area like a local who sees beyond the veneer of glitz and glamor. His storytelling is fast paced, the mechanics of his fictional world are well thought out and original, and his characters are about as emotionally realistic as anything I’ve ever read.

Antiheroes are all the rage days. It seems like a simple enough recipe, right? Just make your character tough as nails, give him a smart mouth, a few bad habits, and viola! Instant antihero. The truth is, there are so many of these types of characters in books these days, they aren’t even the antihero anymore. They’re just the standard hero. Now, the guy that WANTS to save the world and be a poster boy for kittens might as well be an antihero because he’s a dying breed of good guy.

My point is that the antihero archetype is a dead and tenderized horse in literature. A lot of people do it, and it’s usually some variation of the same asshole who really never convinces you he’s as tough as he says he is, no matter how many asses he kicks in the course of his story.  I’m not saying that a proper antihero isn’t possible, or even that it’s not a good character.  But I’ve become skeptic of the archetype as it has been presented in recent memory. Richard Kadrey has restored my faith in the archetype.

Stark is the definitive example of what the antihero should be. He has all the little bits that I mentioned above. He’s got a potty mouth, he smokes, he drinks, he’s insensitive to the feelings of those around him, and he kicks a ton of ass. If you brought him home to pappa, you’d be locked in your room until you were an old maid with a withered prune for a womb. What sets him apart is that he’s not dark and gritty because Kadrey shows it through action, or twisted witticisms. It’s in the subtext of his back story, and his interaction with his fellow cast of characters.  This is a character who has literally been to Hell and back and he’s WAY rough around the edges because of it. But it’s not a mask to hide some inner self.  He is the way he is, because Hell made him that way. In a sense, he’s damaged like an ex-con after getting out of prison. Life on the inside (or underside in Stark’s case,) makes a person hard through and through. Maybe they don’t want to be that way, but they can’t help it.  They’ve lived a certain way for so long that they don’t know how to be anything else. Through a series of flashbacks Kadrey reveals that Stark wasn’t always the way he is now. In these tender moments with Alice, he’s arrogant and a little selfish, but a decent human being at his core. Kadrey does a good job of conveying just how much Stark adored his lost love, and revealing this relationship allows the reader to connect with Stark in spite of his abrasive exterior.

Probably one of my favorite aspects of Stark’s character is how awkwardly he interacts with normal people. He’s lived such a cruel life, that he’s literally uncomfortable when he has to talk to people instead of shoot or stab them. It’s almost endearing in its own way as it makes him kinda vulnerable. He knows he has to try and be something else around others; he never really succeeds, but you give him points for effort. Sometimes in the novel, he even embarrasses himself with his harsh behavior, and Kadrey loves to point out his inadequacies to the reader.

“For eleven years, I’ve been worked over and abused in ways you can’t imagine by things you don’t want to know about. I’ve killed every kind of vile, black-souled, dead-eyed nightmare that ever made you piss your pj,’s and cry for mommy in the middle of the night. I kill monsters ans, if I wanted, I could say a word and burn you to powder from inside out. I can tear any human you ever met to wet rags with my bare hands. Give me one reason why I could possibly need you?”

“Because, you might be the Tasmanian Devil and the Angel of Death all rolled into one, but you don’t even know how to get a phone.”

While the novel is very character driven, there’s plenty of action to whet the appetite, and I especially liked Kadrey’s ability to be vivid and descriptive in as few words as possible. He writes in a bare and direct prose that works well in a novel that is intensely violent and twisted as some of the hard-boiled crime novels that it emulates. In the book Stark definitely gets as good as he gives, and Kadrey had me cringing more than once as he described Sandman Slim’s slap-dash attempts to patch himself up after a particularly nasty scuffle. At the end of the day Sandman Slim is a whole mess of good things. It’s gritty, dirty fun, but also holds a depth and social commentary that is indicative of Kadrey’s ability as a storyteller.

I give Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey 5 (of 5) stars.

Pick up your copy of Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey at Amazon.

Brandon Johnston
Written by Brandon Johnston

Brandon is a Reporter, Critic, Tornado Alley Correspondent, Technomancer, and Book Department Editor for SciFi Mafia®. When he's not writing for SciFi Mafia®, he's busy being a dad, a novelist, and a man with more hobbies and interests than is healthy for any one person to have.