James Stark is the only man who has ever gone to Hell while still alive, and escaped to tell the tale. He’s back on Earth to hunt down those who sent him to Hell and kill them. Because he’s picked up a few immunities to injury during his time Down Below, where he was essentially a gladiator, he thinks that might not be too difficult a job. In fact, he takes five bullets straight to the chest in his first few hours back here, and they don’t do anything but pose a threat of eventual lead poisoning if he doesn’t get them removed.
Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim is urban fantasy with a kick to the head. Stark is the kind of anti-hero who becomes more of a hero the longer you read about him – he makes an effort not to kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it, and is even sorry that he decapitated one of his enemies and kept the guy’s head alive to be captured by another one of his enemies. Stark tells his story in a first-person narrative that never slows down, not even when he sleeps. From sending the bad guys scampering from a bar they were blackmailing to taking an angel’s sword straight to the gut, Stark is a tough guy Dashiell Hammett would recognize, if Hammett wrote about the supernatural.
Kadrey builds his alternate Los Angeles with great care. There are marvelous throwaway lines that tell you exactly what kind of world you’re in. For instance: “Yes, there are vampires. Try to keep up.” He describes his supernatural weapons with care: “My favorite weapon, a na’at, was on the ground. A na’at is sort of like a spear, but it morphs and changes into a lot more than a spear if you know how to use it right. Like everything else down there, the name is a Hellion joke. They call a na’at a ‘thorn’ because its full name, na’atzutz, is the kind of bush they used to make Christ’s crown of thorns.” (Hellions, naturally, are denizens of Hell.) His hierarchy of good guys and bad guys is a bit different from what we’ve been taught in Sunday school; angels don’t seem to be especially good, and God is apparently absent after having screwed up a few bits of creation. Humans, in fact, are nothing but accidents that God got fleetingly interested in before being distracted by something else.
One thing everyone in Kadrey’s universe seems able to agree on is that Kissi, a third kind of being after angels and humans, are bad stuff that we don’t want. But human magicians seem to be unable to stay away from them, especially Stark’s enemies, who think they see a way to use them without themselves being used. They’re wrong.
Sandman Slim throws a new idea at the reader with almost every page in an orgy of weirdness. I like that in a novel, even if it is almost exhausting to read. It would have taken fewer pages to serve the plot, and the book might have benefited by judicious editing, but that couldn’t happen without losing an idea or two or a dozen; it must have been quite a dilemma for those who worked with Kadrey to bring this book to fruition. One thing that must have gotten lost in editing, though, is how and why Stark is called Sandman Slim. That seems to just start happening at one point, and the book doesn’t explain where the nickname came from or what it means. But that’s such a minor point when the novel is moving forward at 90 miles per hour that one hopes only to find out in the next novel set in this universe.