Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey
There’s an art to writing a long serial without a visible end in sight. From the author’s point of view, it starts with the need to keep very good notes about who everyone is now, what their backgrounds were, and what you plan to do with them. That way, when you get to book seven and you feel like reintroducing an old character, you can look him or her up, and keep the plot running smoothly. For the readers, however, there’s a particularly troublesome problem. Let’s say you’ve been reading this series religiously. As each book has been published, you were there in the queue waiting for the bookstore to open with cash in your sweaty palm. That means, courtesy of the cockamamie publishing schedules, you’ve been reading one book a year for however long. Even when I was young and rose from the couch occasionally to pick up another book, I struggled to remember the detail of every nuance of plot as time passed. Now I’m getting close to death and my brain cells are dying faster than a speeding bullet that can jump tall buildings, I have trouble remembering what day it is. So what’s the author to do? The answer is to remind old duffers like me who everyone as as they read the books. Here comes Billy Bob whom we first met in the second book and he doesn’t get on with Snarky Pants because, in the fourth book, she slept with the woman Billy thought he loved before he found out she swings both ways. And so on. . .
This means, at a technical level, I’m actually getting a bit bored with the way this serial is being told. There’s an awful lot of baggage being dragged through the pages of these books as the story arcs twist and turn, reintroducing people and then discarding them again as needed. When the Sandman Slim serial kicked off in 2010, it was deliciously irreverent and wildly groundbreaking (to allow the dead to rise and for quick access to Hell if the doors got stuck). Now we’ve done all the religion jokes, offended everyone who has faith, and killed off all manner of different beasties supernatural, diabolical or divine, the only thing we’ve got left is the developing story and the cast of tens who keep the action rolling. And I’m beginning to grow sceptical, almost losing faith (in the purely secular sense of the word). I picked up Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey (Harper Voyager, 2013), the fifth book in the serial, with some mild trepidation and found some of my fears confirmed. The metanarrative remains interesting as the dispossessed old gods continue to seek a way back into their “territory”, but this episode feels like it’s marking time. We talk with the old Lucifer over donuts and visit with the new Lucifer as he tries to restore a little more order in the place after the last holder of the office made such a mess of things. The old gang is still together and the focus of our attention is on recovering the Qomrama. This is going to involve penetrating Kill City, hence the title.
One slightly curious feature of this book is the structure which has the big set piece about two-thirds of the way through, leaving a long epilogue moving the metanarrative forward. If you ever wanted the perfect example of a book that’s so not a standalone in an ongoing series, this is it. Although I imagine a newcomer could just about follow events up to the big fight, there would be bemusement at all the housekeeping to get the right people in the right places for the next exciting instalment in the serial. Under no circumstances should anyone attempt to read this without reading some if not all the earlier books. It will make no sense to see different “people” like or dislike each other, or suddenly manifest with supernatural abilities, or turn out to be the Devil or an angel and start fighting. This leaves me with a big health warning. Kill City Blues is definitely only for the die-hard fan and, speaking as one who has been buying these books, I think this is my last. For better or worse, Richard Kadrey is crunching out the wordage to move the plot forward and all the joie de vivre has gone out of it.