The secret police who police the secret magical policemen are quickly becoming my least favorite faction in paranormal mysteries. The men in black of modern fantasy, they’re usually an empty threat– mysterious, well-connected heavies who serve no purpose but to make our heroes look like bad-asses for flaunting authority. They show up partway through a novel, warn the protagonists that their actions are drawing too much attention from the mundane world, and then get their faces rubbed in it when the good guys save the day.
They’d merely be an annoyance, but from a story perspective they’re a deliberate handicap. If science-fiction is the art of exploring how people would react if aliens invaded/iPhones gained sentience/you could backup your memories on Facebook, then this sort of logic– that shadowy forces have a duty to keep the real world from finding out about vampires or we’d all get really scared, guys!– greatly reduces the imagination that an author is required to put into developing a fantasy novel. It precludes the writer from having to think about how people might respond if they found out about the existence of vampires. Instead, they can simply churn out book after book set in a world where no one believes vampires exist.
I already know what that world is like. I live in it. There are tons of books about that world already. I make a deliberate, stubborn decision to avoid those sections of the bookstore entirely. Basically what I’m saying is that if you want to impress me, have enough balls to try thinking a few steps ahead of Charlaine Harris.
Secret magician police aren’t the only predictable annoyance in Sandman Slim, but as the last group of players introduced in the novel, they’re the freshest in my mind. As the titular hero, James Stark is approached by an endless stream of magical organizations and resolutely turns them all away. An unkillable, unlikable jerk, his sole motivation after breaking out of hell is to get revenge on the magicians who killed his girlfriend, because, aww, she’s the only girl he ever really loved. It’s impossible to imagine him ever being nice enough to deserve a girlfriend, let alone that after all he’s been through, he’d still give a damn. As a character, he’s almost a non-entity. The closest thing he has to a salient personality trait is struggling with a hard-boiled tone in his tensionless present tense narration.
The first book in a series, Kadrey’s world offers nothing new. Concerned with political scuffling between demonic generals and a potential war with heaven, it’s a generic attempt to make pulp mythology out of Christianity. The logic behind these conflicts is deliberately left vague, another common stumbling block in supernatural fantasy. There’s the thinnest hint of a mystery surrounding Stark’s invulnerability, but the final revelation feels tacked on, just like the nickname he suddenly acquires partway through the book. The sense that Kadrey was making it all up as he went along and never looked back leaves Sandman Slim feeling more like a 400-page introduction than a stand-alone story deserving a follow-up.
Like any contemporary fantasy series, it’s possible something more interesting happens in book two (or three or four), but after slogging through a novel narrated by such a mopey, unsympathetic prick and filled with supporting characters who exist as the sketchiest of archetypes, it’s hard to imagine what would inspire someone to press on. That continues to be my dilemma when approaching these types of books. It seems like a slam dunk for an author to take the genre and dude it up a little bit. But I’ll be damned if anyone’s tried and made it work.