Richard Kadrey's 'Sandman Slim' series does urban fantasy right--by doing it all wrong
Urban fantasy doesn’t have a lot of rules. Being a genre, though, its audience will have certain expectations. As popular series like Charlaine Harris’ True Blood and Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files prove, there must be vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons, fairies, and/or other supernatural creatures.
In that sense, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series is pitched right over the plate of urban fantasy. His sixth and latest Sandman Slim novel, The Getaway God, came out last week, and like the five installments that precede it, the book runs down the urban-fantasy checklist with aplomb. But even as it satisfies the demands of the genre, it twists them into clever counteroffers and sly subversions—to the point where being a fan of urban fantasy isn’t a prerequisite for enjoyment. This is urban fantasy writ large.
James Stark, Kadrey’s antihero, is not a nice guy. As hideously scarred as he is sarcastic and possessing the patience of a honey badger with a Jack Daniel’s problem, he spent most of his adult life in Hell. Literally. After being sent to the Underworld at the age of 19—while still alive—he served as a gladiator in Lucifer’s fiery pits for years before returning to Earth. Oh, and he’s a magician. More specifically, he’s a member of the Sub Rosa, a mystical society whose members are adept at magic, a force which works quite well in Kadrey’s tilted vision of the world.
Way back in the series’ first volume, 2009’s Sandman Slim, Stark bursts out of the gate with fists cocked. He wakes in a pile of garbage in a Hollywood cemetery, freed from one Hell only to find himself in another. Back on Earth, he’s a non-person. But to the realms beyond Earth, he’s Sandman Slim, legendary for having survived so long while fighting demons for a living. If you can call it a living. He sets up shop in a video store—another relic of a previous time, just as he is—and begins to shake down Los Angeles, a city that becomes just as much of a character in Sandman Slim as a backdrop.
His enemies are legion. His friends wouldn’t fill a unicycle. With nothing to lose, he sets about building a life for himself, or at least something that passes for one. And he starts to seek answers: about how he wound up in Hell, about how his true love Alice was killed, and about his true parentage. Even as a boy, Stark never had to work hard to summon vast supernatural powers. There’s a secret there, and Stark embarks on a quest to unravel it. Along the way, just about ever species of supernatural monster pops up, from angels to zombies to everything in between.
By the time The Getaway God rolls around, everything has changed for Stark. But in a way, nothing has. Every victory winds up be Pyrrhic. The stakes escalate. And his adventures have come to encompass the entire cosmos. The series, which started out as a twist on the paranormal detective trend, now sprawls across the entire universe. Make that several universes.
Urban fantasy doesn’t usually go this big. That’s part of what sets Sandman Slim apart, but it’s also what makes the six-book series increasingly unwieldly. Like Stark, Kadrey bites off more than he can chew. Then he goes ahead and chews it anyway, with a grin. Stark’s voice is the eye of the hurricane. He’s cool, wisecracking, self-deprecating, and utterly charismatic. Pop culture references abound, most of them of the punk-rock and movie-geek variety—but Kadrey entices readers into that world.
Even better, his use of arcane lore is more in-depth and profoundly informed than any in urban fantasy. There could be a whole encyclopedia about the magic, monsters, and cosmic geography of Sandman Slim. Like one of his clearest influences, the horror master H. P. Lovecraft, Kadrey (pictured below) rips the skin off the real world, revealing the supernatural nerve endings and metaphysical meat underneath. And his prose couldn’t be more visceral if it were carved into flesh.
The Getaway God does more than sharpen Kadrey’s fangs. Six books in, he’s made an unimaginably bold move: hitting the reset button. Urban fantasy books live and die by their comfort-food appeal, and that usually means sticking to the status quo established at the start of the series. Kadrey has taken Stark as far out of his hardboiled element as he possibly can—but in The Getaway God, he brings him full circle. One full year has passed since the events of the first book. Perversely enough, the series so far has taken place between two Christmases. We’re brought back to the same cemetery that Stark crawled out of, way back in Sandman Slim.
Kadrey then takes a torch to almost everything he’s built up so far, all the familiar elements that have made the books so cozy yet prickly at the same time. It’s pure kamikaze writing. In the hands of a lesser author, it might be series suicide. To his credit, Kadrey not only burns away the excess Sandman Slim had built up over six sprawling novels, he leaves a spark of potential gleaming in the ashes. Stark will be reborn, in a sense, and from here on out, Sandman Slim will never be the same.
Then again, survival has always been the theme at the root of Sandman Slim. What does it mean to be a survivor? What price is it worth? What if surviving means being left with none of the things worth living for? Sandman Slim, at first glance, might seem like another entry in the urban-fantasy sweepstakes. But Kadrey sacrifices none of the series’ genre-centric expectations in his daring effort to deconstruct them all. The Getaway God is his most gripping example yet, a lesson in how social commentary and emotional depth can be smuggled into a book that’s a double-barreled blast to read.
At its heart is profound truth that urban fantasy often forgets, in all its fetishizing of vampires, zombies, and demons: One’s humanity is worth clinging to, at all costs. Even if, like Stark, sometimes you have to be inhuman—or nonhuman—just to stay human.