Ballistic Kiss: The series gathers momentum as it heads into the home stretch

Ballistic Kiss by Richard Kadrey science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsBallistic Kiss by Richard KadreyBallistic Kiss by Richard Kadrey

2020’s SANDMAN SLIM novel, Ballistic Kiss, is the second-to-last entry in Richard Kadrey’s long-running demon-fighter punk-wizard series starring James Stark as Sandman Slim. I don’t know what I will do when the series finishes. I’ll miss the big lug.

However, Ballistic Kiss didn’t leave me too much time to fret about the future; Stark has plenty of adjustments to make in his present. Brought back to life by the Sub Rosa magical practitioners after a year dead, Stark is living in a flying-saucer shaped house owned by the Sub Rosa, struggling with PTSD, when the book opens. Returning from Hell (and death), Stark has discovered that, to his way of thinking at least, his friends’ lives have improved without him. Candy is in a much less complicated relationship with Alessa. Kasabian’s video store has, surprisingly, become financially successful. Stark is trying to figure out where, or even if, he fits in, when Abbott, the leader of Sub Rosa, approaches him with a job. A mob of murderous ghosts has swarmed an eccentric Los Angeles neighborhood called Little Cairo, and the ghosts have so far proven immune to every attempt to quiet them or exorcise them. Meanwhile, Samael, the former Lucifer, has a job for Stark too — track down an elusive angel named Zadkiel, who can reopen Heaven. (Rebel angels locked the doors to Heaven, having decided to keep it for themselves, dooming all humans, good or bad, to Hell.)

That should really be enough to keep Stark occupied, but on his way back from a drive, Stark observes a group of well-dressed thrill-seekers, running across an LA freeway in the dark, blindfolded. It soon turns out that Stark’s new friend Janet is connected with this group of adrenaline junkies, who manage to kill about one person per outing.

Ballistic Kiss by Richard Kadrey science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsJanet is gender non-binary and Stark struggles to get their pronouns right. I really liked this aspect of the story. Kadrey is not playing this issue for laughs or trivializing it. Stark cares for Janet and wants to show that he takes Janet seriously, but like many of us, he’s absorbed several decades of indoctrination and habit. Janet presents as female, and Stark struggles to use “they” and “them.” He screws up, but keep trying, and it’s a really validating part of the book.

In case you’re worried that Stark’s attempts at enlightenment take front and center, rest assured that he is correcting himself from “her” to “them” while he tracks the ghost of a B-list actor who was murdered in the 1970s, races ahead of a wildfire storm as part of the adrenaline junkie group, fights off several onslaughts of murderous ghosts, and struggles to decipher what Candy wants from him. There is action and suspense galore.

I thought a couple of points were obvious from the beginning. At one point, Stark calls himself “slow” for not grasping a big clue about the actor ghost’s murder, and I agreed with him. However, Stark’s investigation brought us two fascinating minor characters, a washed-up actor and a Sunset-Boulevard-level doomed film diva, and both were wonderful. The group of thrill seekers are simultaneously obnoxious, oblivious, and evil.

The flying saucer house is awesome.

In the quieter moments, Stark tries to reconcile with his old friends. Kasabian has completely rejected him it seems, but Allegra and the immortal alchemist Vidocq are still helping him, and they have mended their relationship. This is a SANDMAN SLIM book though, and several multi-book story arcs are resolving, so don’t expect things to go well for everyone. In fact, one catastrophe that overtakes a friend was a complete surprise, expertly delivered by Kadrey.

In a video book-launch earlier this month, Kadrey mused that the overarching story-question of SANDMAN SLIM might be, “Can a monster become human?” Stark is struggling with that question, but we readers know the answer. I hope in the final book, the truth will become clear to him as well.

Published in August 2020. Sandman Slim is back in Los Angeles and kicking more supernatural ass in this inventive, high-octane page-turner—the next to last volume in the popular and acclaimed fantasy adventure series from New York Times bestselling author Richard Kadrey. As the battle between warring angels continues, James Stark is focused on seemingly simpler matters now that he’s resurfaced on earth: an invasion of ghosts. L.A.’s Little Cairo neighborhood has suddenly been overrun by violent spirits, and Thomas Abbott knows if anyone can figure out why they’ve appeared—and how to get rid of them—it’s Stark. Armed with the Room of Thirteen Doors, Stark quickly learns that the answer may reach back to the 1970s and the unsolved murder of small-time actor, Chris Stein. As he begins to dig into the cold case, another area of Stark’s life takes an unexpected turn when he becomes entangled with Janet, a woman he saved during the High Plains Drifter zombie attack. Janet’s brush with the living dead hasn’t quenched her thirst for danger. She’s an adrenaline junkie and a member of The Zero Lodge—a club that promises “there’s zero chance you’ll get out alive.” The Lodge attracts thrill seekers who flock to perilous events such as night walks through the LA Zoo—with its deadliest animals uncaged. Joining the lodge to be with Janet, Stark makes a pair of crucial discoveries that could decide the fate of LA and Heaven itself. To prevent the Little Cairo haunting from consuming the city, Stark must piece together the connections between the Lodge and a missing angel last seen in a Hollywood porn palace. But while he may dispatch the ghosts, Stark knows that without his help, the bloody war in Heaven could rage forever.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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