In the overcrowded urban fantasy/horror market these days, it's tough to get my attention. You've either got to be a proven commodity to me or hook me pretty quickly. Richard Kadrey does an excellent job of the latter in his latest novel "Sandman Slim" ($22.99, Eos).
James Stark has just returned to Los Angeles after spending 11 years in Hell ... quite literally. Before finding himself Downtown, Stark was a member of a circle of magic-users. Jealous of his power, the leader, a man named Mason, opened up a pit into Hell during one of their ceremonies and, with the help of some supernatural monsters, had Stark dragged there. Treated as a novelty by Lucifer and his generals -- the only living human to ever visit -- Stark was forced to fight in the arena against a bevy of vile creatures and was even recruited as an assassin in the demons' struggle for power. He's returned to Earth with plenty of new tricks, bent on revenge. In the process, though, he may just save the world.
At it's heart, "Sandman Slim" is a simple revenge tale in an urban fantasy setting -- a couple of things that are both quite overdone. But its hard to resist the hook of Kadrey's tale as, in the opening scene, Stark wakes up in a Dumpster with his clothes on fire and his strange story starts to slowly unfold. There are also a few nice little twists and turns to the story along the way, which I won't reveal here but are worth the journey.
Stark is the classic anti-hero. He's not a nice person, not someone who generally does the right thing just because it's the right thing. He's cold, callous and calculating, and everything is second to his plan for revenge. It's quite a challenge to take a character with those qualities and turn him into someone you want to cheer for, yet Kadrey manages to make it happen. He also surrounds Stark with a strange and fascinating cast of characters, ranging from a goth girls to mysterious wise men to an off-the-grid supernatural doctor with a secret to an angel that heads a government agency to fight Hell's minions on Earth.
"Sandman Slim" appears to be the set up for a new series of tales, and if Kadrey can keep them as interesting as this one, I'll look forward to continuing to read about Stark and Co.