"Imagine shoving a cattle prod up a rhino's ass, shouting "April Fool!", and hoping the rhino thinks it's funny. That's about how much fun it is hunting a vampire."
- James Stark
Over the past two years, I've had a ton of respect for Richard Kadrey. He's worked with bizarro authors, crafted noir stories that really feel like they're borne out of the mean, gritty streets they take place on, wrote some pretty cool cyberpunk, done "fetishistic photography" (his words) on the side, and he dragged the urban fantasy genre kicking and screaming back to its initial roots in shades-of-grey morality and a world where everything isn't romantic and fraught with relationship drama. Sandman Slim, as some may remember, is a favorite book of mine, for the reason that it moves quickly, slams into its intended climax with the grace and energy of a freight train helmed by John Woo himself. Butcher Bird is an equally awesome novel, one that takes the "one last heist" concept and sets it in a grotesque mishmash of worlds and ends in a literal trip through Hell. Kill The Dead tries to be a worthy successor to that legacy and...isn't.
Kadrey still blows the other mooks out of the water when it comes to urban fantasy detective fiction, but Kill The Dead finds James Stark much in the same straits one finds the novel: Without a purpose, drifting from familiar haunt to familiar haunt, playing at working for the Golden Vigil, a bunch of overarmed and underinformed Homeland Security dicks whose sole purpose seems to be to play right-wing strawmen. Things get off to a cracking start with Stark taking down a pod of teenage vampires, including a blond schoolgirl with a flamethrower. This gives him a small amount of comfort, because Homeland Security decides to take taxes and Social Security out of his paycheck, and he goes back home, where his former friend and onetime enemy Kasabian tells him that Lucifer has a job for him. Stark accepts, and becomes Lucifer's bodyguard while the Prince of Darkness tries to get his biopic made. But with the streets filling with zombies, the vengeful angel Aelita after him, and members of the magical underground vanishing left and right, Stark will have a lot to contend with if he ever wants to collect his next paycheck.
I suppose the problem with the novel is simply that it picks up almost directly where the last one left off. Mason is still down but not out, Aelita is still calling Stark a freak of nature, Ghost-Alice is still haunting Stark, and the whole thing has a downbeat tone. This isn't a sequel, this is someone writing the buildup to a sequel. Stark's renewed sense of purpose doesn't kick in until the last third or so, and the whole book ends on a cliffhanger, so not even that went anywhere. While there are some cool fight scenes, including Stark and a Czech porn star ripping zombies limb for limb, the book's momentum is choppy. No longer do we have the smooth (if formulaic) transitions between fight scenes and Stark adjusting to the world that moved on while he was stuck in Hell...no, now we have a bunch of uptight magic Angelenos hanging around Lucifer while Stark tries and fails to make sense of an electronic cigarette. Allegra, the uninitiated alchemist from the first book, is easily the best thing about it, and a book about her, written in sort of a "this is House with magic and with absolutely none of the slimy residue Olivia Wilde leaves on everything she touches" way probably would have worked better for this transitional material, leaving the writer with only the problem of transitioning back to Stark for the big nasty fight scenes.
The characters are still strong, though...Lucifer comes through as some kind of pretty-boy, but one that's well able to handle himself, especially as seen when he takes down a hit squad with two massive, flaming swords. That's right, he's so special he gets two gladii instead of one. Allegra has matured nicely, as have Kinski and Carlos the bartender. And so has Stark. Which makes me pause. Yes, of course Stark should mature. That's the whole point. But Stark is an anachronism, a leather jacket-wearing bastard in a century of touchy-feely types who know they need him, they must trust him, because he's the man separating them from the dark. And I understand that his scars have to heal up because there needs to be that element of risk to the whole thing, but the direction Stark is going...it doesn't feel like Stark. This isn't the man who told the head of the Sub Rosa to fuck themselves, this is that man plus thirty years.
And finally, why invalidate plot points as soon as they're brought up? If Stark is part angel, and that's why he heals from whenever someone tries to kill him, why, exactly, does that stop happening now? If the Vigil has a supernatural terrorist list, why haven't they acted on it until now? All of these questions pop up suddenly to create false and inflated tension in the work. While the fight scenes are still crisp, they no longer function as well. While the descriptions and the tough talking are cool, they all seem rather hollow. In the end, Stark walks off to Donut Universe once again, but it doesn't seem as right or as okay.
In the end, I hope Mr. Kadrey writes another Sandman Slim book, one that helps tie this one up. It's a good transitional sequel, but it's nowhere near the end the series deserves, or even a complete book. It's a mess, a strange half a book that runs on too long, and nowhere near as up to par as the first one. It's still head and shoulders above the other fantasy crime novels of the genre, but for a man who writes as god damn flawless as Richard Kadrey has in the past, it's a step down and a definite disappointment.
Next Week, we return to steampunk with The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder.