The story so far: James Stark, an aspiring young magician – and we’re talking real magic here, not card tricks – is sent to Hell by a ruthlessly ambitious colleague who goes on to murder Stark’s girlfriend. For eleven years Stark is forced to compete in Hell’s arenas. During this time it comes to his attention that he is somewhat hard to kill, becoming impervious to any attacks unsuccessfully used against him. This brings him to the attention of Samael who turns him into a personal assassin, earning him the nickname Sandman Slim and a special place in Hellion nightmares.
On clawing his way out of the Underworld he exacts his revenge against those who destroyed his life, cavorting around Los Angeles to highly destructive effect. Cue entanglements with Homeland Security’s paranormal division (The Vigil), a vicious and disillusioned angel (Aelita), violent creatures from before the dawn of time (the Kissi) and of course vampires, zombies and neo-Nazis. Did I mention he also becomes Lucifer for a period, reigning over the chaos that is Hell? Oh, and that he’s a Nephilim, half angel, having been sired by Uriel? Or that he’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, sarcastic and foul-mouthed son-of-a-bitch? Well, there you go, you’re up to speed.
Kill City Blues, fifth installment in the adventures of Sandman Slim and his merry band, carries off directly from where Devil Said Bang left off. Back in LA, Stark is still reeling from his time as Lucifer. Unfortunately the universe never takes a break. You see, it transpires that God didn’t create the universe, rather he tricked its creators, the Angra, out of it. These Elder Gods are displeased and beginning to find holes in reality large enough to allow them through to our domain.
Sandman was entrusted with a weapon, the only of its kind, which is capable of destroying gods – the Qomrama Om Ya – but he, erm, misplaced it. To further complicate matters, the God who did the original tricking had something of a nervous breakdown and shattered into five separate beings, none of which particularly like the others. One of these aspects is dead, one (Mr Munnin, the most reasonable) currently rules over Hell while the most unhinged still sits on the throne of Heaven. Against this background Stark must relocate the Qomrama Om Ya while pursued by several other factions with the same intent, all of whom are convinced he must know where it is.
Kill City Blues, given such a premise, should have been a surefire hit. Indeed, I’d been awaiting this book for some time. So why doesn’t it quite hit the spot? Well despite the potential-laden plot, Kadrey spends the first half off the novel rehashing old ground. It feels at times as though this was written specifically for those who hadn’t bothered to read the first four novels in the series. This is where Stark’s from. This is how he got here. This is how he met X, Y and Z. This is what in-jokes A, B and C refer to. And so on. Don’t get me wrong, Sandman’s caustic wit, the expert use of ridiculous metaphor and the beautifully sleazy images of an LA alive with magic are all there. It’s just that all the foot-dragging starts to grate after a while.
And then there’s the action itself. In a book entitled Kill City Blues you’d expect the city in question to make an appearance early on, right? But no, we have to wait until past the halfway mark to discover what it is, why it’s important and whether anyone is ever going to get there. And once we do arrive it feels as though you’ve gone into a store at five minutes to closing time, rushed through by the clerks and unceremoniously ejected before the shutters come down.
Now it may sound like I didn’t like the book. That’s not true. I smashed through Kill City Blues in record time, barely stopping for breath. In a page-by-page sense it’s a pulpy, delicious slice of fun pie. It’s when you take it as a whole that the cracks appear. Instead of devoting half of the book to rehashing the background and running a couple of wild goose chases, this could have been handled in a couple of chapters and left more space for what should have been an epic journey through Kill City. There would have been more opportunity to develop some of the characters within – more Grays please! – and it would have felt more complete and less like the first half of a larger book.
So it’s a mixed bag. If you’re already a Sandman Slim devotee then Kill City Blues will certainly keep you on the level till the next fix appears. However it’s not going to reach the heights of previous outings so lower expectations accordingly. Hopefully part six will provide the apocalyptic bang promised but not delivered here.