Urban fantasy is a genre that I find a little dicey. On the one hand, it gives you the complete brilliance of War for the Oaks and Neverwhere. On the other hand, it gives you the Anita Blake novels. Still, there’s something about magic in a modern setting that’s undeniably fun, and so when Chuck Wendig posted this list of reader-favorite urban fantasy, I went right to the first one on the list that I hadn’t read: the Sandman Slim series. So far I’ve finished two, Sandman Slim and Kill the Dead.
In Sandman Slim, James Stark — soon to be known as “Sandman Slim” in the world of demons and angels — escapes from Hell after ten years battling in Colosseum-style fights to the death. He heads back to his hometown to wreak havoc on the people who sent him there–and who killed his girlfriend Alice. In Kill the Dead, Stark has carved out a place for himself in the Los Angeles supernatural community and finds himself on-call for some unusual missions.
I think the best way to describe these two books is as urban fantasy versions of Jack Reacher novels. Unlike the drifter Reacher, Stark stays connected to LA, but the two series have a lot in common. Like Reacher, Stark isn’t a big talker; like Reacher, Stark is handy in a brawl; like the Reacher series, the Sandman Slim books aren’t shy about violence. (Seriously. If you’re not into violence or descriptions of violence or gross things in general, Sandman Slim is probably not for you.)
I bring up the Reacher comparison largely because it helped me realize why I occasionally found the first two Sandman Slim books tiresome. The thing that makes the Reacher books stand out in the crowded airplane-thriller genre is that Reacher may look like a big dumb brute,* but he’s actually incredibly smart. It’s interesting to spend time inside his head.
Spending time inside Stark’s head isn’t quite as much fun. Sure, ten years of torture in Hell would make anyone screwed up, but at times I wanted to shake Stark and a) get him to put maybe five brain cells into puzzling out what was going on around him, and b) tell him to go back to Hell if he’s actually that miserable living back on Earth. At times Stark’s crabbiness verges on whininess — not a great look on an action hero. When Stark finally kicks into gear (and starts interacting with other characters) the books start being fun again, but when he’s standing still and reflecting on life and how pissed off he is, they’re just not as interesting.
That said, I do admire Kadrey’s refusal to soften his protagonist. Stark is a miserable SOB who leads an extremely violent supernatural existence, and that’s what the books are about. If that sounds appealing, this is your series. If that description doesn’t interest you, skip these. If you’re on the fence, I will add that the supporting characters are solid and that the writing does have a macabre sense of humor, so it’s not all doom and gloom in Stark’s world.
Rating: Library Loan – but only if you’re not put off by the “miserable SOB who leads a violent existence” thing
* This, more than the height thing, is why I really hated the Tom Cruise casting in “Reacher.” He’s way too pretty.