Would James Stark, the hero of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, and Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden get along? Here’s what I think. They could drink together, but sooner or later they’d get into a fight and end up torching the neighborhood. They’re a little too different, yet too much alike.
Dresden is a rebel and an outcast. So is Stark, but he is something more — a true punk, in the 1980s Sid Vicious sense of that word. He’s something more than that, too, but I don’t want to spoil it for everyone.
Stark’s punk sensibility marinated for eleven years in Hell, where a rival magician sent Stark (still alive) when he was nineteen years old. Stark survived by becoming an arena fighter in Hell, and later a shadow assassin for one of Lucifer’s generals. Now he’s escaped. He has three magical artifacts and one simple mission: to kill the people who betrayed him and shopped him to Lucifer.
Stark’s L.A. is strange and wholly familiar at the same time. The high-gloss glamour of Rodeo Drive and the movie moguls exists one parking space away from the donut shops and taquerias, the derelict crack houses, the mostly-empty strip malls. Punks and drug addicts live in the city like coyotes. Murderous, self-righteous angels direct clandestine Homeland Security operations, and the Sub Rosa, the community of magical beings, function just slightly below the radar. It’s a town where you can buy anything and almost nothing has any value. As Stark says, “LA is just one traffic jam away from Hiroshima. God, I love this town.” He refers to Hell as “Downtown,” a nice bit of wordplay in a city that doesn’t exactly have one itself.
Stark is a product of rootless, centerless LA. He doesn’t articulate a fancy code of honor, or philosophize about magic. He’ll bulldoze Heaven to kill the folks who betrayed him, and march into Hell to save his friends. Or maybe it’s the reverse. Actually, he might do both. He is foul-mouthed, hard-boiled and funny, and he’d fit comfortably into a James Ellroy novel.
Sandman Slim drives at a hundred miles an hour from Page One — another LA characteristic. Kadrey peoples the book with fascinating, funny, frightening characters. Let’s just say that Lucifer is not the scariest thing out there.
Kadrey drops occasional details in his rush to thrust Stark into his next crisis. For instance, Allegra has a shaven head when we first meet her, but during a fight scene, a villain grabs her by the hair, just four days later. But the sheer energy and authenticity of Stark’s voice make these lapses forgivable. Of all the wonderful things here — the interesting backstory and worldview, the characters, the adrenaline-rush plot — I think Stark, the punk-gladiator and fringe-dweller-magician, is quite the best.