Devil Said Bang by Richard Kadrey
This has been my week for catching up on series or, in this case, I should more properly say serials, because this is definitely one story being told in installments. The technical problem when it comes to writing these books is how to keep the evolving plot fresh when you place a limit on the corps of characters to draw on in each exciting episode. This is not perhaps so much of a problem when writing, say, a serial about a group of crime-fighters. You keep the team the same, add in or subtract their sexual partners, and then introduce new villains to fight in each book. To keep it interesting, the team must be continuously training to add new skills to their existing repertoire so that, as each new challenge presents itself, they can defuse the threat in different ways. Sadly, this approach cannot work for a serial like Devil Said Bang by Richard Kadrey (Sandman Slim Volume 4) (Harper Voyager, 2012). Why? Because from the outset, we’ve been following the everyday story of God and the Devil as seen through the eyes of James Stark, aka Sandman Slim. Since, by definition, you can’t get any more powerful than God and the Devil (although some of the senior angels and demons do their best to take down their respective top dogs), this limits the overall inventiveness of the supernatural systems of divine and diabolical “magic”. The only person who can develop in ability is James Stark.
For those of you who’ve failed to pick up on this serial, James Stark is distantly related to Wild Bill Hickok but has achieved a rather unique status. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a stone-cold killer or an Abomination, i.e. a mixture of fallen angel and human. Because he’s inherited “powers”, his early years see him develop as a magician on Earth. Then he’s involuntarily sent to Hell, survives and manages to find a way back. We pick up the story with him back in Hell. He’s been given the job of the Devil — the old one had grown rather tired of it all and needed a gullible twit to take over power “downstairs”. We therefore spend the first half of this book watching our hero trying to introduce a little order into the chaos.
This is an opportunity for some mild satire on organisational bureaucracies. At the end of the last book, Hell came in for a little pummelling. This means endless committee meetings to draw up plans for rebuilding, dealing with the problem of financing the entire project, looking at the need to beef up the military against the risk of further attacks, and so on. If it’s one thing Hell is good at it’s procrastinating. After all, this form of afterlife is not supposed to be comfortable so, with all the destruction, everyone at the lower social levels is going through real hardship and privation. The rich have their palaces and are insulated from the day-to-day awfulness. All they have left to occupy their time is plotting the assassination of the current Devil. There’s racial prejudice at the heart of this. A human as the Devil is a supreme insult to the hard core demons. Most of them fought the losing war with God and have been feeling pretty suicidal about being stuck in Hell. This latest development just adds insult to the original injuries.
The second half of the book has our “hero” escape Hell again and then confront serious problems for the human Earth back in LA. It’s at this point that the book grows increasingly less successful. In the previous episodes, we’ve had a mystery element as to who the villain is and how he or she plans to cause the maximum death and destruction. Coming to the fourth installment, the choice is villain is somewhat limited so, to distract us, the author introduces multiple plot strands. There’s so much going on with different people/beings coming and going, it’s quite easy to lose track of who might ultimately be behind it all. Indeed, I think there’s a slight air of desperation about the plot. Although it’s actually quite clever when you sit down to analyse it, the execution is overcomplicated and rushed. Ironically, I suspect it would have made a better plot for a single installment. That would have given us time to develop the individual plot strands into more substantial narrative arcs and we could have been given a better chance of working out what was going on. Because it’s only half a book, we have the wrong tone set in the first half. The slight humour militates against the seriousness of the threat when it emerges. Then because there are space constraints we get the set-up and then explanations of what was going on.
This leaves me in some difficulties in reaching a conclusion. Because it’s a serial, there’s no reason to start with Devil Said Bang. You won’t know who anyone is nor what they are doing. As with all these serials, you should start at the beginning. For those of you reading the serial, I find this the weakest book so far. Indeed, I would go so far as to advise the author to stop while he’s still ahead. I think, unless he comes up with a different approach, the serial will repeat the formula once too often and run out of steam.