Sandman Slim investigates Death’s death in this hip, propulsive urban fantasy through a phantasmagoric LA rife with murder, mayhem, and magic.
James Stark has met his share of demons and angels, on earth and beyond. Now, he’s come face to face with the one entity few care to meet: Death.
Someone has tried to kill Death—ripping the heart right out of him—or rather the body he’s inhabiting. Death needs Sandman Slim’s help: he believes anyone who can beat Lucifer and the old gods at their own game is the only one who can solve his murder.
Stark follows a sordid trail deep into LA’s subterranean world, from vampire-infested nightclubs to talent agencies specializing in mad ghosts, from Weimar Republic mystical societies to sleazy supernatural underground fight and sex clubs. Along the way he meets a mysterious girl—distinguished by a pair of graveyard eyes—as badass as Slim: she happens to be the only person who ever outwitted Death. But escaping her demise has had dire consequences for the rest of the world . . . and a few others.
For years, Slim has been fighting cosmic forces bent on destroying Heaven, Hell, and Earth. This time, the battle is right here on the gritty streets of the City of Angels, where a very clever, very ballsy killer lies in wait.
“I break his wrists so I don’t have to break his neck.
He falls to his knees, but I don’t think it’s the pain, though I make sure there’s plenty of that. It’s the sound. The crack of bones as they shatter. A sound that lets you know they’re never going to heal quite right and you’re going to spend the rest of eternity drinking your ambrosia slushies with two hands.”
Killing Pretty is the seventh of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels. It is also being billed as something of a reboot, or at least the perfect jumping in point for a new reader who doesn’t want to go all the way back to the first novel. And I suppose it is, speaking as someone reading their first entry in the series, although that’s the sort of answer that you can never give more than half an answer to. That opening line and paragraph sure as hell set a tone, though.
Sandman Slim aka James Stark is distinctly of the nasty, badass sort of anti-hero. His first, second, and third option is to crack skulls and he does it oh so well, crippling an angel right on the first page. He is a Nephilim, half an angel, and as the new reader quickly learns, he did a long stint in Hell and most recently sealed away some Old Ones.
There’s a lot of that, internal as-you-know-Bobs recounting events (presumably) from the earlier novels. There is almost too much of it (I prefer to start a book with a bit of flailing around before I can truly get my head above water), but it gives a nice context for the events of the book and fleshes out Stark and his friends.
Killing Pretty is urban fantasy, and there are superficial similarities to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (my review of Skin Game is here). Stark is a snark-dealing, magic-wielder in a big American city populated by a variety of sub rosa fae types. But the hard-drinking (Aqua Regia), hard smoking (Maledictions) Stark makes Harry Dresden look like a boy scout. There are necromancers and vampires, but no elves or werewolves (at least in this book). Butcher pulls freely from Christian sources, but it’s most of the game in Killing Pretty, whether angels in Heaven or from “Downtown” (between that and the heavy noir feel, it’s as much Ian Tregillis’ Something More Than Night as Butcher’s Dresden Files).
The other difference between Sandman Slim and the Dresden Files is that the former can be categorized as regional fiction, at least by my definition. I will take a minute to say what I mean by that. I don’t think it’s useful to use regional fiction as a means of genre ghettoization, segregating genre fiction from literary fiction (a misnomer itself I will let pass without comment for now). Rather, the simple test is: could the story be picked up and taken elsewhere without indelibly changing the story? Are the atmosphere, the milieu, the personality of a place as important to the story as the magic, as the plot, as the characters? It’s not enough for a story to be set in, say, the Appalachian Mountains. Elmore Leonard’s Fire in the Hole and Raylan are not regional fiction; Ron Rash’s stories are. Leonard’s works, for all their merits, are written by someone who never visited Harlan, Kentucky and it shows (Justified did better on this metric, especially after the first season). Rash’s work can’t take place anywhere but western North Carolina and be the same stories. The City of Angels (oh hey, I see what Kadrey did there) is inextricably a part of Killing Pretty.
The very strong noir element goes along with that, of course. L.A. is quintessentially noir. And along with the long discourses on L.A., all the movie references, all the bit players who show up as bit players, Laurel Canyon and its history, all the tourists, all the high-end shopping, all the traffic, and along with the stylized movie poster cover, complete with a billing block, Stark’s new reduced state even sees him working part-time as a private detective, the quintessential noir anti-hero.
Reveling in the milieu, Kadrey keeps Killing Pretty at a slow burn—don’t expect the pagely fireworks of Skin game—letting the story bloom like a desert cactus, but for a guy like Stark, it is always going to come to a place where “[t]here are things that can only be settled a certain way.”
The publisher sent me a(n unsolicited) copy of Killing Pretty.