Kill the Dead: A Sandman Slim Novel
by Richard Kadrey
Review by Benjamin Wald
Eos Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061714313
Date: 01 October 2010 List Price $22.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Kill the Dead is the sequel to Richard Kadrey’s inventive and intriguing first urban fantasy novel Sandman Slim. Unfortunately, this second outing into Stark's grim world is a bit of a disappointment. While it retains the fast paced, action-filled plot and Stark's own surprisingly endearing blend of tough-guy machismo and self-deprecating dry humor, the plot is a mess, with lots of action but little sense of motion, and Stark himself is frustratingly ambivalent and unmotivated throughout most of the novel. While Kadrey has retained some of the strengths of the setting and character, these aren't enough to redeem a lackluster sequel.
In the first novel, James Stark fought his way out of hell after having been sold to demons by his supposed friends in exchange for magical power. After eleven years of torture and brutal gladiatorial combat for the entertainment of Hell's denizens, he returns to earth to get revenge on those who betrayed him. By the end of the novel, he has saved the world as a happy side effect of his quest for revenge, but the main target of his revenge has escaped his grasp and fled to hell to ferment revolution against Lucifer. Kill the Dead assumes that the reader is familiar with this first novel, with very little allowances made for new readers. Events in the first book are frequently referenced without explanation, and familiarity with the characters is assumed, so those who haven’t read the first book should not try to break into the story here.
The plot starts with Stark taking odd jobs as a bounty hunter and spending the rest of his time drinking. Without the driving force of revenge, Stark begins the novel without any clear motivation or goal. Unfortunately, this aimlessness continues throughout most of the novel. Without revenge as a motive, Stark turns out to be a remarkably difficult character to build a story around. This results in a highly disjointed plot. Stark bounces from crisis to crisis, without any real plan of action.
This problem is compounded by the "one damn thing after another" structure of the plot. There are subplots involving Stark being hired as a bodyguard by Satan, Stark slowly losing his mystical protection from injury, a murder investigation involving the high and mighty in the magical underworld of LA, and a threat of zombie apocalypse, but Kadrey never really succeeds in making these disparate threats feel like a unified plot. It feels like a series of action scenes and witty dialogue strung together by a thin thread of plot that left me unsatisfied. Even more frustratingly, the plot thread left over from the last novel, of Stark's arch enemy conspiring with Lucifer's rebellious generals in Hell, is barely advanced at all, despite a few gestures to make sure we remember its there. The ending is similarly unimpressive, lacking any real feeling of climax or catharsis.
On the positive side, the novel didn't ever bore me. The writing on a scene-by-scene level is interesting and engaging, with the action scenes particularly well executed. The character of Stark is also well done, with his ambivalence and self-pity nicely mixed with wry self knowledge and humor, and just enough kick-ass action hero thrown in. These strengths of the first novel remain in evidence, but it was frustrating and disappointing that nothing new was done with them in this novel.
In sum, this is a disappointing second novel in the sequence. While it retains some of the strengths of Sandman Slim, it mixes them with significant flaws in plotting and a disappointing ending for a sequel that is much weaker than than the original. Hopefully Kadrey can do better with the third installment of the series.