Zoe’s parents were punks in San Francisco when they met and fell in love. Zoe’s father managed punk bands, while her mother was a graphic artist, designing album covers. When they realized they were going to have a child, they went into the straight life, although Zoe’s dad never left punk music behind. Now Zoe is sixteen, her father is dead, and her mother is battling a heartless insurance company that is refusing to pay. They have moved from their pleasant house in the San Francisco East Bay area to a small apartment in the city. Zoe’s dreams are filled with menacing black dogs and a strange woman.
Richard Kadrey is probably best known for his SANDMAN SLIM series. Dead Set is something different; a young adult horror novel. Kadrey masterfully blends the supernatural horror elements of the tale with the real-world devastation Zoe faces. Zoe cuts most of her classes at the new high school where no one knows her. Life feels flat. Zoe’s mother seems overly worried about her nearly-adult daughter, until the reader figures out exactly what Zoe’s mother is scared of.
Wandering the streets of San Francisco after she has left school early again, Zoe finds a strange old record shop. In a dim back room, she looks through an unusual set of records, and the owner, Emmett, lets her sample one. It’s not music; it’s a moment in the life of a person, experienced with all the senses, through a machine Emmett calls an Animagraph. Emmett is willing to go farther and let Zoe experience time with her dead father for a small price, something insignificant, like a lock of hair.
Zoe’s danger seems real and genuinely scary. Her desire to be with her father overrides her basic good judgment. She is not completely without allies, however; she has a friend in the waking world, and Valentine, her “dream-brother” who has been with her as long as she can remember. Unfortunately, Zoe is not quick enough to follow Valentine’s advice. Emmett keeps his part of the bargain, and Zoe visits her father’s spirit in a strange city called Iphigene. It seems strange that her father hasn’t “moved on” from this in-between city, but it doesn’t seem like a bad place. It’s clear that something is wrong though, and Zoe soon discovers just how wrong it is when she follows Emmett through a maze of sewer tunnels and discovers the real Iphigene, and its ruler.
Dead Set is genuinely creepy and scary in the first half, when Zoe is trying to suss out just what Emmett is up to. In the “real” city of Iphigene, things seem little forced, but there is plenty of action and risk. I thought that Kadrey mixed his mythologies a little too much in the city, but it didn’t jar me out of the story. Zoe is a smart girl who pulls out of the depression she is in. She finds her own courage and proves to be loyal and strong. The origin of Valentine seemed clear to me before it was revealed, but it is internally logical and poignant. Zoe’ final confrontation with Emmett and the true ruler of the city of Iphigene is dramatic and strange, as Zoe fights from the top of a mountain of office trash, piled up in a room in the city’s “city hall” (which is really San Francisco’s city hall building). This is a powerfully visual scene that cries out for a movie.
Since this is young adult, I should say that the “f-word” shows up at least twice in Dead Set. Zoe’s folks wouldn’t be real punks if it didn’t, but if you are sensitive about what your children read you should be aware of that. Zoe demonstrates suicide ideation; meaning not that she wishes she were dead, but she actively imagines ways to die. This is an important part of her character development, and is probably a good discussion point for parents and teen readers of this book. Overcoming despair is a big theme here; Kadrey shows us the despair so that Zoe is even more heroic when she battles it.
The “waking world” part of Dead Set was the best to me; the creepy record store, the big new school with an administration that doesn’t have time to care, and the one teacher whose comment near the end of the book gives Zoe some hope. I think Kadrey captured the adolescent experience very well here. Dead Set shares some features with the SANDMAN SLIM series, most notably the “weird city” idea, but Zoe is a different character, on a different path, with an emotionally honest and well-told story.