I recently purchased my very first Humble Book Bundle, and this book was part of it. I had wanted to read it for a long time and was excited to get a copy. In the end, my feelings about it were mixed.
When we first meet Stark, he has just managed to make it out of Hell, after having spent 11 years there. Adjusting to the human world again is hard, but Stark has a goal. He plans to track down all his former magician buddies and kill every last one of them, not just because they sent him to Hell, but because one of them killed his girlfriend, Alice.
At first, Sandman Slim worked really well for me. I loved Stark's “voice” and his dry humor. I enjoyed learning about how he ended up in Hell in the first place, and why and how he made it back out. He didn't make it out of Hell with many resources, but what he did have was really useful: a coin that would truthfully answer any question he asked, a magic knife, a key that could take him anywhere he wanted to go, and his own body, which was on its way to becoming indestructible. Unfortunately, I eventually realized something, and it reduced my enjoyment of the book a lot: Stark was not a nice guy.
I've liked anti-heroes in the past. The first one that comes to mind is Jeff Lindsay's Dexter, the serial killer who kills bad guys. Although Dexter hid his true self from others in order to avoid going to prison, I also got the impression that he genuinely liked his sister, his girlfriend, and his girlfriend's kids, at least as much as he was able. One of my biggest problems with Stark was that I didn't get the impression there was anyone he really cared for, except maybe Alice, and even that was debatable.
Oh, he said he considered Vidocq a friend, and he said he loved Alice, and he was upset when Allegra got hurt because he didn't stop to think things through. However, there's a difference between saying you care for someone and actually demonstrating it. Stark was so screwed up by his years in Hell that the only way he could demonstrate that he cared was by killing things. Wait, no, it was worse than that. He needed to kill, so maybe “I cared about them” and “I feel guilty they were hurt because of me” were just his excuses for more violence. Some of it might have even started before he was sent to Hell. Alice, the woman he said he loved, wanted him to quit meeting up with his magician buddies, I think because they frightened her. Even though he didn't really like them, he ignored her and went anyway, just because he wanted to. Stark was a selfish man who didn't truly care about anyone's wants or needs but his own, and I think Alice would have been horrified by what he became.
I can't remember when I had my epiphany about Stark. Maybe it was when he and Vidocq were doing a dangerous job together, and he abandoned Vidocq the instant he realized he was near a chance to exact some of his revenge for Alice's death. Maybe it was the many times women died or were hurt around Stark, and he felt guilty because they were “innocent” and he couldn't save them. Whether he knew the women really well (like Alice) or didn't know them at all, the language of his guilt was similar enough each time that it disturbed me a little. I don't know that I can articulate why, but it turned me off. In general, friends' or bystanders' deaths or pain didn't make Stark more careful, they just gave him more excuses for revenge.
I'm probably not going to continue this series.
I noticed one inconsistency in the text. Kadrey first describes Allegra like so: “She’d look like Foxy Brown’s little sister, except her head is shaved smooth.” (29) Near the end of the book, we get this: “He pulls the tape off Allegra’s mouth. Grabs her by the hair and gives her a peck on the lips.” (197) I could be wrong, but I don't think enough time has passed for Allegra to have grown a grabbable amount of hair.
Also, not really an inconsistency, but Kadrey never did say what Stark did with the golem. You'd think it would have been mentioned, at the very least as part of a fresh boatload of violence fuel, I mean guilt.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- American Gods (book) by Neil Gaiman - I thought of this read-alike early on, because aspects of Stark made me think of ex-cons. Shadow, the main character of this book, is an ex-con, but I don't recall him being at all angry and violent. He, like Stark, has a magic coin. He also has a lot of adjustments to make, now that he's back out in the world - his wife is dead, and old and new gods are everywhere he goes.
- Storm Front (book) by Jim Butcher - The first book in Butcher's Dresden Files series. Those who'd like another urban fantasy starring a dryly humorous male character might want to give this a try. Unlike Stark, who survives through brute force and a body that's difficult to kill, Harry has to do a lot of planning ahead before he goes into battle.
- The Mister Trophy (e-short story) by Frank Tuttle - You can begin this series at various places - this is what I started with. This is yet another urban fantasy series starring a dryly humor male character. Like Harry Dresden, he's basically a private investigator. Unlike Harry or Stark, he can't do any magic, although he knows someone who can give him a hand with that. I've written about this and other works by Tuttle.
- Supernatural (live action TV series) - All of the angel and demon stuff in Sandman Slim reminded me a lot of this series.