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Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey

September 6, 2013 Leave a comment

kill-city-blues

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. . .

Richard Kadrey

Richard Kadrey

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.

For reviews of the other books in the serial by Richard Kadrey, see:
Aloha From Hell
Devil Said Bang
Kill the Dead
Sandman Slim

Devil Said Bang by Richard Kadrey

Devil Said Bang

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.

Richard Kadrey looking unqualified to write about Hell

Richard Kadrey looking unqualified to write about Hell

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.

For reviews of the other books in the serial by Richard Kadrey, see:
Aloha From Hell
Kill City Blues
Kill the Dead
Sandman Slim

Aloha From Hell by Richard Kadrey

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

The first time you do anything over a reasonably long period of time, it’s fun and interesting to learn something new. The second time around, however, you know the basics. With the benefit of hindsight, you’re just correcting the errors you know you made and working everything up to a state of reasonable perfection. It’s still interesting because you know you can be better than the first time. But when it comes to the third time, you’ve reached the ranks of a professional. You know how to deliver what the audience expects and all you need do is switch on the autopilot and go through the well-honed motions. It’s no long fun because you’ve learned all you need to know to deliver the content. The only thing driving you now is pride. No matter how many times you deliver the content, you want it to be the best performance you can give.

So when Richard Kadrey sat down to write Sandman Slim, he was full of the joys of spring. There’s a wonderful sense of amusement permeating the entire text, with delightful wit and knowing insights littered through the text with casual abandon. For those with no religious hang-ups, it’s a wonderful reading experience. I thought Kill the Dead almost as good. The pace of the plot is nicely managed and, once again, we feel Kadrey is still having fun. Unfortunately, Aloha From Hell sees Kadrey back to being a seasoned professional. This is still a “good” book but it lacks the faintly anarchic disrespect that made the first two so pleasing. This is not to say I think Kadrey is bored with Sandman Slim as a cast of characters, but the entire reading experience has almost ground to a halt with this book. That said, the plot in simple form is full of potential.

Richard Kadrey looking distinguished without his tattoos

The Sandman is provoked into making a trip back to Hell. This involves a slightly complicated set of events. Our hero will not simply go if his arch-enemy Mason calls. He must talk himself into the visit. So kidnapping Alice, his ex-girlfriend, is the bait he rises to. If we accept the notion of a game with two halves, the pre-Hell part of play is way better than the second when he actually gets to Hell. Although there are times when the descriptions grow to tedious length, there’s still a sense of some chemistry between our man and both Vidocq and Candy (Kasabian is slightly sidelined). But once we get back into Hell, everything feels padded out with a lot more exposition. Worse, this is not really the same Hell we were expecting from the descriptions given in the first two episodes which is given a less than satisfying explanation. It does all come to a reasonable conclusion. The right butts are kicked and it’s left with options for the series to continue. That said, I hope Kadrey doesn’t write another. I think he’s shot his bolt with these characters and would be better advised to start something else new to rekindle his interest. Of course, HarperCollins may throw money at him for more Sandman Slim. This will pay the mortgage and keep him going. For what it’s worth, I think this would be a mistake on both sides. I fear it might produce something professional (as we would expect from an author with this experience) but boring.

Taking an overall view of Aloha From Hell, I suppose there are what we might now term the trademark mayhem moments, but the relationship between the Sandman and his inner angel doesn’t feel quite right. The idea his birth produced one body with two minds is psychologically mechanical. I’m prepared to suspend disbelief on the basis that one mind might get access to new abilities with the voice of his conscience more active than would be usual in a human. Pulling the cork on the angel’s bottle like releasing a genie when magic tricks are required is more 1001 Arabian Nights than iconoclastic Sandman material. Equally worrying is the the relegation of his inner circle of friends to sidekicks who only appear in the first half of the book. I understand he can’t take them with him when he goes to Hell but, with Candy now more officially his girlfriend as well as his bodyguard, it emphasises the lack of continuity between the first and second halves of the book. So, this is a bit disappointing after the first two in the series. If you came to it as a standalone, I think you would also find it confusing and not very good. What little enjoyment there is comes from knowing who everyone is. So read this third-time Richard Kadrey only if you travel in hope of finding something you enjoy. I’m not an infallible judge. This may be just what you’re looking for to lighten a day when you’re feeling down.

For a review of the fourth and fifth books, see Devil Said Bang and Kill City Blues.

Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey

November 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Being really old means falling victim to the curse of memory. You know weird stuff no-one else cares about, but have the uncontrollable urge to tell everyone all about it. Like remembering the first time I saw Hellzapoppin’ in the cinema more than fifty years ago. It was a revelation. Living in a quiet backwater, experience had taught me Hollywood produced rather dull films, particularly as propaganda or feel-good during and immediately after WWII. This was my first experience of genuinely subversive comedy in the cinema. Now, apart from the Lindy Hoppin’, it all looks a bit desperate and rather sad. For those with hindsight, we can judge how radical it was, appreciate how much it challenged orthodoxy, and then just smile. Sometimes, humour can’t transcend the cultural limitations of time. You have to be in the moment to appreciate it and then have the wisdom to let it go.

For years, I used to think the same problem applied to written humour — that it was forever stuck in its culture. Then, in 1962, I picked up a copy of Catch 22 — the first time I laughed out loud at an American book — shame about the film version. Now I believe it all comes down to the voice. Most of the time, authors aim their creativity at the mass market. This is capitalism in action as, not unnaturally, everyone wants to get the maximum return from the labour of writing. So whatever humour is involved tends to be generic, picking targets familiar to the largest number of people. The result is uniform blandness. It’s all wonderfully inoffensive, usually boring and forgotten quite quickly.

All of which thinking brings me to Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey (the sequel to Sandman Slim). This is not an author aiming at the mass reading audience. According to the demographics, there are more Christians to the square mile across the US than in any other country. Allowing for some dishonesty in answering questionnaires, more than 80% of the population declares some degree of belief in a personal God. Largely following in the Islamic tradition of condemning anyone who mocks their God or His prophets, Christians resist direct or indirect criticism of their beliefs. Marketing this book to them is therefore a challenge. For example, in an early exchange, our hero says to the Devil, “You gave God a rusty trombone and lived to talk about it.” Not something likely to amuse an Old Testament literalist who is probably pissed off that His God has not been making with the lightning bolts to rid this world of blasphemers. That said, there’s actually news that Hollywood may be greenlighting a screen adaptation of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. I suppose the letters will be rewritten so that’s it’s advice from a senior angel on how to guide humans in avoiding temptation and falling into sin. Even 1940’s British satire may be too much for modern America.

Be that as it may, Kill the Dead follows on from Sandman Slim with a completely irreverent first-person narrative involving God, the Devil, a few angels and lesser devils, the occasional vampire, various magicians and, as the title suggests, quite a lot of dead folk. Not forgetting our Sandman who is, of course, an Abomination — like all the best anti-heroes in these end-of-days stories. Although, truth be told, our hero does go a little schizo in the heat of battle and therefore loses some of his acerbic wit for a moment or two.

The most pleasing aspect of the whole is the character development. As our escapee from Hell, James Stark is initially a man on a mission and there ain’t nothing gonna stand in his way as his campaign for revenge rapidly gets out of hand and involves ever more dangerous opponents. Having successfully navigated through to a not-unsuccessful ending in the first book, we now find him working for the “good guys” but, as is always the case, he soon finds himself caught up in a whole new threat scenario. This time, it’s the Devil who’s za popped outa Hell and wants Stark as a bodyguard while visiting Earth. That’s when he’s not offering his expertise to Homeland Security on magical masochism. Yet, there’s soon something strange about Stark. He’s thinking before, during and after more violent episodes. Even to him, this goes against the grain. Indeed there seems to be a whole new unexplored dimension to his personality and physical abilities. Our guess that he must be growing into more of the abilities genetically transmitted by his father is confirmed as the pages turn.

So we have a nicely balanced horror story with associated magic and general supernatural mayhem, developing into a mystery thriller in which we wonder who is behind the plot to stir up all the dead without waiting for the last trump to sound. Told with a positively wicked and noirish sense of humour, readers whizz through to the end as if pursued by the Devil, leaving us hoping for the third episode which is titled Aloha From Hell and due in 2011. This is definitely poppin’ for all who enjoyed the first outing and, unlike Hellzapoppin’ and The Screwtape Letters, will travel well in time. For a review of the fourth and fifth in the series, see Devil Said Bang and Kill City Blues.

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

April 28, 2010 1 comment

On Friday, a friend of my wife’s sent me one of these rabid Christian circulars. She knew it would amuse me. It featured a list of people who had mocked God only to die in spectacularly appalling ways some time later. The message was simple. You’d better believe in God, particularly as portrayed in the Old Testament, because one word or action out of place and the old fellah is gonna come down from on-high and kick your ass downstairs to Hell. Well, as a more-or-less life-long atheist, bring it on, says I. It’s about time we got past this faith barrier and began collecting some empirical evidence on the acts and omissions of deities around the word. From this, you will realise I’m not singling out Christianity. The onus has always been on every religious organisation to explain to the world exactly why we should abandon common sense and believe in the supernatural.

I begin with this declaration of my lack of faith because I have just finished reading Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey, a man who might well want to buy some life insurance if he takes e-mail chain letters from the religious community seriously. It’s a delicious coincidence too wondrous to ignore that I should come to this book immediately after receiving the e-mail. It’s obviously a trick of Satan (the devil not the ice hockey player).

Anyway, here we have a superficially routine story about a human dragged down to Hell except, much to everyone’s surprise, he avoids death. Indeed, he’s soon a regular in the arena fighting all-comers and acting as a hit-man. Yes, in this version of Hell, it seems lower-ranking demons can be killed although I frankly cannot really explain what happens to them after this untimely demise except these new victims end up in Tartarus. Then, thanks to acquiring a set of doors (think the excellent TV serial The Lost Room and you get the idea of being able to go anywhere you will) he gets back to Earth and on to the revenge trail of those who sent him to Hell. He then confirms himself as a kind of Constantine, hobnobbing with angels, magicians and the occasional monster.

Once secure in the knowledge he’s going to be very difficult to kill, it’s left to the author to ratchet up the odds as our hero finds himself in the role of a potential saviour of Earth. It seems one of the reasons for him being relegated to Hell was to free up the playing field for the arrival of some nasties from the outer void. In the ensuing fighting, he encounters some tough characters from the Department of Homeland Security and, with a little help from some friends, takes on the invaders and the humans who opened the door to them. It’s a strong brew and, in structural terms, the novel takes a risk in allowing a significant amount of talking after the climax. Most up-and-at-’em action novels build up to the climax and quit before they have to explain themselves. Kadrey prefers to take his time and debrief us. He also leaves the door open to sequels — not a surprise in these commercialised days.

Were this all, the novel would be a by-the-numbers two-dimensional collection of standard tropes we would rapidly consign to the dumpster. But the reality is rather different. The whole is an engaging interior monologue. At times, it positively crackles with wit and it’s pleasingly fearless in taking on shibboleths. More importantly, it mocks its own assumptions. For example, one of the key problems in science fiction novels when you deal with “door” systems is to ensure you do not step out into the middle of a wall, underwater or two miles in the air. Even if you do manage to synchronise both sides of the door so you can pass through safely, how does it look to interested viewers when people suddenly step into view? Well, Kadrey puts it this way: “How can you see two guys dressed like ushers at Liberace’s funeral walk out of a wall and not react?”

So, while the plot is not much to write home about, the writing itself is singularly pleasing and, for those of you with flexible sensibilities when it comes to books involving Christianity (no fatwas please), it’s an irreverent romp. Naturally, neither Kadrey for writing the book nor I for reviewing it favourably feel threatened by circular e-mails threatening premature death. If you do harbour worries on this point, say prayers should you catch sight of this book on the shelves in bookshops and pass hurriedly by before you succumb to devilish temptation.

There’s an excellent video by Kadrey about this book on You Tube. If you are thinking about buying, it’s well worth a moment of your time.

For the sequels, see:
Aloha From Hell
Devil Said Bang
Kill City Blues
Kill the Dead.

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