Keeping Up with Sandman Slim: A Recap
Later this month, Kill City Blues, the fifth book in the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey, will be released. For those unfamiliar with the books, they follow the exploits of one James Stark, also known as Sandman Slim, amateur magician and supernatural warrior. For those people familiar with The Dresden Files, the series has some surface similarities, but it’s as if someone took Harry Dresden, dipped him in booze and cigarette smoke, dropped him down to Hell, kicked him round the dirt some, then dragged him back up with a bad attitude. Stark is a definite antihero—surly, disrespectful to authority, but loyal to his friends and a defender of the common man.
If you’re looking for urban fantasy with a bit of a gritty edge to it and a touch of noir, the Sandman Slim series is for you. In order to get people up to speed for the latest installment, or refresh your memory on what has happened so far, here is a quick rundown of the Sandman Slim books to date. Needless to say, plenty of spoilers below.
In Sandman Slim we are first introduced to Stark, just after he makes his way back to Earth from Hell. Turns out that eleven years earlier, one of Stark’s magical colleagues sent him screaming Downtown where he became a fighter in Hell’s gladiatorial arena and then an assassin. Stark is somehow incredibly tough, tough enough to get away from his handlers and make it back to the real world.
He comes back with a hunger for vengeance, too. While he was in Hell, someone killed his girlfriend, Alice. That someone almost definitely being Mason, the one who sent him Downtown in the first place. Stark’s plan is simple—kill everyone involved in both operations. He’s armed with a Hellion coin that always tells the truth, a black blade that can cut through pretty much anything, and a mystical key that’s embedded in his chest and can allow him to walk through shadows and into the Room of 13 Doors (and also back out to pretty much anywhere).
Stark isn’t your typical hero. He’s a car thief, for one. The black blade he carries allows him to steal any car he wants. He uses this skill to get at the people that wronged him. One of his first victims is Kasabian, owner of a video rental place called Max Overdrive. Stark doesn’t kill Kasabian, but he does cut his head off and takes over the store. This introduces him to Allegra, a girl who works there. When Allegra gets beaten up by someone because of him, he takes her to Vidocq, an old friend of Stark’s from before he went Downtown. Vidocq is an alchemist and also immortal (an accident). He ends up teaching Allegra some of what he knows.
Stark continues his vendetta which results in a public confrontation with Parker, Mason’s right hand man. This brings Stark to the attention of Marshal Larson Wells, part of the Department of Homeland Security and also part of something called the Golden Vigil. Homeland Security apparently knows all about magic and the supernatural, and Wells is one of the people tasked with keeping things under control. The Golden Vigil is led by Aelita, an angel, who doesn’t seem to like Stark one bit. She tells Stark about the Kissi—otherwise referred to as anti-angels. They’re attracted to Chaos. Long ago the Kissi and the Angels went to war and it ended in a truce which allowed the Kissi to stay on Earth. But they seem to be ramping up their activities. Aelita wants Stark in on the fight against them, but Stark refuses. Then Aelita grabs Stark’s hand and calls him Abomination. Then she calls up a flaming sword and stabs it through Stark. He dies.
Luckily Vidocq gets to him and stabilizes him enough that Dr. Kinski, a supernatural doctor, can bring him back to life. After he’s recovered, Stark sees Kissi all over the place, and when they kill an innocent doughnut store worker he decides to take the fight to them. He knows where their leader, Josef, is (after a tussle with him earlier in the novel) and he burns that place down, decapitating Josef in the process.
A short while later, Aelita confronts Stark again. She tries to take him out with her gladius, but he’s prepared this time and uses a Hellion weapon to take her down. Then he heads for his Vidocq’s place only to find the place broken into and both Vidocq and Allegra gone. Parker calls him, saying he has them both at Avila, a place where people pay to have sex with angels.
Stark goes to the Vigil and Wells is already planning an attack on Avila. There’s a ritual about to go off and not only that, but Aelita’s there, having been picked up by the Kissi when Stark finished with her. Stark and the Vigil enter using Stark’s key and they’re soon joined by Candy, Dr. Kinski’s assistant, who is a Jade, a monster that kills (though she’s trying to reform). They rescue the angels, including Aelita, but Parker, Allegra, and Vidocq aren’t there. But Stark think he knows where they are.
He goes after Parker and takes him out, rescuing his friends. Then he explains how he realized where Mason and the Kissi are. They’re in the one room in the Room of 13 Doors that Stark hasn’t gone through. Stark finds Mason there with the Kissi. He wants Stark to join him. The idea is to invade Hell, take control of its armies, then invade Heaven. Stark refuses and takes on Mason. They fight and Mason sinks his hand into Stark’s chest, trying to get the Key there. They tumble through space and as they go, Stark somehow cuts through the fabric of the Kissi’s home and opens it up to light, killing the Kissi. Then he and Mason tumble through the Room of 13 Doors and Stark drops Mason off in Hell.
Dr. Kinski explains to Stark that he’s a nephilim—half human, half angel. And Kinski’s a rogue angel. Turns out the bastard that Stark knew as his father really wasn’t. An angel was. This gives Stark power but also makes him an abomination in the eyes of any angel. Every other nephilim has already been hunted down and killed. In the end, Lucifer comes to Stark, and Stark offers to do work for him on a freelance basis. Lucifer leaves Stark with a special stone and makes Kasabian his go-between.
By the beginning of the second novel, Stark has established himself and settled into something of a normal life. He lives with Kasabian (still a head, though now with nifty legs) above Max Overdrive and does odd jobs for the Vigil AND Lucifer for money. However, since the Vigil come off as assholes, well, sympathy for the devil and all that.
Also, Allegra has brought up the fact that Stark’s father, an angel, may be Lucifer, which would explain why Lucifer seems to be so focused on him. It’s a theory Stark feels must be true, but he doesn’t want to think about it.
One of Stark’s odd jobs involves him clearing out a nest of vampires which nets him a strange belt buckle. Later, he plays bodyguard to Lucifer who seems to have people gunning for him. But not before showing up to a fancy party and meeting a mix of old magic types and Hollywood elite, including a porn star who goes by Brigitte Bardo.
While he’s at the now-mobbed Bamboo House of Dolls (his favorite bar), chatting to his new porn star friend, a zombie attacks, what Stark calls a High Plains Drifter. Brigitte seems to know what it is and ends up showing him how to dispose of it and its friends. This leads to some hot sex between the two of them and Brigitte admitting that she’s essentially a zombie hunter. Porn star is just her day job.
It soon becomes apparent that zombies, usually bad news but rare, are showing up with increased frequency. And they’ve been attacking some of the old magic families. Stark tries to get the Vigil in on this (especially so he can get paid) but they’re pissed that he’s working for Lucifer and cut him loose. Lucifer, likewise, wants nothing to do with it.
Seems there are different types of zombies, though, from the mindless shamblers up to thinking and indeed almost human varieties. Stark learns about one of these near-humans and ropes him into the investigation. He tells Stark of the tunnels beneath the city where all of the dead go. It’s filled with zombies, though they are usually kept in.
Stark and Brigitte both get bit by zombies, which is usually a death sentence, but Allegra and Vidocq magically freeze Brigitte so she won’t die. Stark, on the other hand, continues on, his human side dying piece by piece.
Stark thinks he knows the asshole responsible for all of this, but when he shows up the asshole is already dead. He then faces off against the Vigil, who tries to kill him. However with his human half dying, his angel half is more in control. He manifests his own gladius and takes out the Vigil troops. This convinces Aelita that God is wrong, that he needs to be replaced and she’s the one to do it. She leaves Stark and heads off to try to kill God and take his place.
Stark uncovers one of the people behind the uprising of the dead, a son of a wealthy family masquerading as another son. He takes him to Lucifer’s hotel room, only Lucifer’s not there. Stark saves Lucifer and confronts him about being his son, only Lucifer isn’t Stark’s father. Uriel, Dr. Kinski is. Stark returns to Lucifer’s hotel room where he confronts the family behind the dead uprising. They are something called Death Born, a different kind of living dead. They have Candy and Kasabian. Dr. Kinski is dead. Stark makes a deal to get them back, only the family, the Geistwalds, try to double-cross him. He uses his Hellion weapon which is doused with the blood of one of the prime zombies. This brings the Death Born back to life. Since they summoned zombies to come to them, Stark leaves them to the zombies and gets Candy and Kasabian out.
By now Stark realizes that the belt buckle he found in the beginning is really the Druj Amman, a seal from the gates of Heaven. It also controls both Hellions and zombies. He could use it to walk into Hell and get Mason, but he needs it to stop the zombie uprising. In the end he throws it off a roof, destroying not just it but all of the zombies in LA. When he returns to his apartment, all of his human side is dead and the angel is in control. He tells Candy to go away, but before she does, she stabs him with a knife dipped in prime zombie blood. As with the Death Born, it brings his human side back to life. In the end, Hyrbid Stark is back. And things are back to a sort-of normal. But Stark knows that Lucifer wants him to become the new Lucifer and though he doesn’t want it, he would to get at Mason.
At the start of the third novel, Stark is pulled into an exorcism gone wrong. At first he decides not to get involved, but then he gets a text telling him to drop it (while on a date with Candy, Dr. Kinski’s assistant and Jade). So of course he changes his mind and gets involved. Stark gets even more PI in this book, talking to the possessed boy’s parents and trying to find out more information about the demon that possessed him. In the course of the investigation, Stark and Candy get...intimate. It also comes to light that the possessed kid is the brother of someone who used to be in Stark’s magic circle (who killed himself before Stark came back).
They eventually track the kid down to the burnt out husk of Avila (the angel brothel from Sandman Slim) only he’s not possessed by a demon after all. Instead it’s been Mason all this time, trying to taunt Stark. He tells Stark that he has Alice with him, down in Hell, delivered all nicely by Aelita. This whole thing has been an invitation.
Stark obliges Mason by getting a spirit of the road, Mustang Sally, to tell him how to get Downtown again. Turns out he has to smash a car into an underpass at a crossroads. Which he does and ends up near the Garden of Eden. Inside is a passageway to Hell. Of course it’s guarded by an angel, with an attitude. Stark fights the angel and cuts off his arm and gets into Eden. Then he gets into Hell, only this Hell is like the apocalyptic version of L.A.
Stark first goes after Mammon, one of Lucifer’s generals. He kills Mammon’s men and gets Mammon and a human soul, one Jack the Ripper, to tell him how to get to where Alice is being kept. It’s a long trek dodging Hellion troops, and at one point Stark has to rip off his own face (and wear Mammon’s) to get past. He even fights in the arena again and gets his arm cut off. He’s in bad shape when Josef appears (he’s still alive and he and Stark have a deal). Josef helps him out by giving him a limb replacement - a Kissi carapace-type arm instead.
Eventually he gets to Alice and frees her. Oh, and he meets God. Who is...not what you’d expect. After leaving Alice with God, he goes to Tartarus, where fallen angels and twice-dead souls go when they die, and he rescues, well, everyone, but chiefly General Semyazah, so that he can lead the forces of Hell against Heaven.
Then they attack Heaven with Stark calling on his Kissi allies to lead the attack. The attack doesn’t go as planned, though, or at least not how Mason and the Kissi had planned. The Kissi get taken out between the armies of Hell and Heaven and then the armies of Hell return to Hell. Stark chases Mason back there as well, only to find Alice is Mason’s prisoner.
Mason mentions that he couldn’t create a duplicate of the Key to the Room of 13 Doors, but he was able to make a better black knife. They sling spells at each other, but then Mason gets the drop on Stark and cuts open his chest with the black knife, trying to get at the key.
Stark dies. But...the angel part of him doesn’t. It gets free and manages to subdue Mason and bring human Stark back (only as a separate entity). Turns out the stone that Lucifer gave Stark back at the end of Sandman Slim was a soul storage device. When Human Stark died, his soul went into the stone allowing the angel to bring him back.
Rather than just kill Mason outright, Stark plays Russian Roulette with him. The first shot is an empty chamber for Stark. The second shot blows out Mason’s brains. In the end, Stark, wearing Lucifer’s armor, takes over Lucifer’s position while Lucifer, now known as Samael, takes Alice back to Heaven. Stark says his final goodbyes. Angel Stark intends to return to Earth and stay there. The novel closes with Stark promising to return again to Earth.
After the events of Aloha From Hell, Stark is now the new Lucifer, tasked with ruling Hell. He’s living in the palace, has assembled a ruling council, and he wears Lucifer’s famous armor, but, as you can tell if you’ve read any of the books, it doesn’t feel like a good fit (the role, not the armor). His angel half is gone, somewhere back on Earth with his old friends. He’s essentially on his own.
It quickly becomes apparent that ruling in Hell is not an easy job. And Stark is aware that someone is gunning for him. He is attacked on a night drive through Hell by drugged or mind-controlled Hellions. Then later he’s attacked again in his palace. And there’s a Church in Hell which seems to want him eliminated. On top of all this, he finds Mason’s secret room where he was experimenting with possessing people and he also finds a strange omniweapon that Stark calls the Magic 8 Ball.
Stark finds a piece of Lucifer's armor that Samael, the previous Lucifer, hid. This gives him a huge increase in power. It also allows him, he discovers, to return to Earth. Stark uncovers the conspiracy in Hell and deals with it and then forces General Semyazah to take over for him while while he returns to his old life.
A series of reunions follows with Stark reconnecting with Kasabian (now in a hellhound body), Vidocq, Allegra, and perhaps most importantly, Candy. Stark’s only been Downtown for a few months, but already things have changed a bit. Candy, for example, is dating another recovering Jade called Rinko. He also runs into Brigitte, the Revenant Hunter from Kill the Dead. It’s not too long after he gets back that things start getting all screwy again.
First of all, people don’t react well to Stark, thinking that he’s Saint James, Stark’s angel half who apparently has pissed off a lot of people. Then there’s the little ghost girl who appears and kills a few people at the Bamboo House of Dolls. Stark, of course, starts to look into this.
He turns up a connection to the bigwigs in the Sub Rosa. When he goes to confront them, he finds that they’re allied with Aelita the angel. Stark throws around a little Lucifer power to intimidate them but gets nowhere until one of the group, by the name of Lula Hawks, gives him a tip which leads him to a tinkerer named Mike Manimal, which leads him to some of Lucifer’s kiss-ass devil worshipers who he puts to work digging up information. Around the same time he runs into his old colleague Cherry Moon (who was killed in Sandman Slim). She’s dead now, a ghost who still hangs out in her own skeleton. She crawls through the ground, unable or unwilling to move on to the afterlife. She begs Stark to look into the ghost girl who is out there killing ghosts. Stark says he’ll look into it.
Stark moves into Lucifer’s rooms at the Chateau Marmont and calls up Traven, the exorcist from Aloha from Hell, and invites him over. When he arrives, Stark tells him he’s Lucifer and they speak about things metaphysical. Then the Satanists arrive and, after a small confrontation to confirm his identity, Stark pumps them for information. He finds out the ghost is called the Imp of Madrid. He also gets contact information for King Cairo, one of the Sub Rosas gunning for him, and Teddy Osterberg, a collector of cemeteries. The Satanists also give Stark a brand new arsenal.
Stark, on Traven’s advice, goes first to see Teddy Osterberg, who has cemeteries and graveyards shipped to him from all over the world so that he can provide a sanctuary for ghosts. Stark threatens Teddy with a gun but it seems that Teddy’s clean. Later, Stark finds out that people who sound like the Golden Vigil raided Max Overdrive, though they didn’t hurt Kasabian.
Stark then goes to King Cairo, intending to attack him, but instead witnesses Cairo fighting with his girlfriend. Cairo shuts his door on her and then the ghost girl appears, about to attack her. Candy tries to attack, but the ghost girl cuts her with her knife. Stark only drives her off by using the Magic 8-Ball against her. Then he takes Candy to Allegra’s clinic and takes the girlfriend to Lucifer’s room.
Her name is Patty Templeton and she’s a dreamer, one of a group of people who help to stabilize reality with their dreams. She explains that the ghost girl has been mostly going after dreamers. And this has been causing problems in LA. Strange-colored skies, weird weather, etc. Stark drops her off in Dreamer HQ and then picks up Kasabian, bringing him to the Chateau Marmont. There, Stark has Kasabian watch over him while he uses a ritual that brings him close to death so that he can visit the Tenebrae, the ghost world.
Once there he sees Cherry, and then he talks to the ghost girl. She’s not very clear, but it seems that she’s not operating on her own. Someone is controlling her and it seems that someone is Teddy Osterberg. She also says that her name is Lamia.
Stark returns and gets a call from Traven who ends up driving Stark to go see Osterberg. Candy goes with them. In the car Traven explains that the old gods, the Angra Om Ya, had created the universe and God just stole it from them. The 8-Ball is really the Qomrama Om Ya, the Godeater, a weapon meant to kill gods. Lamia, it seems, is at least a part of the old gods, or a part of one of their avatars. As this explanation is occurring, the car is attacked by King Cairo. Candy and Stark hold them off and then Stark changes course and heads instead to Saragossa Blackburn’s, the head of the Sub Rosa.
Once there he sees Brigitte is with them. Blackburn admits to being behind the plot to kill the dreamers. He wanted to replace them with Sub Rosa, to remake the world in a better way. Then King Cairo appears and shoots Stark, actually penetrating Lucifer’s armor. Cairo gets in close, but Stark uses his Kissi arm to kill Cairo. Then Aelita comes in with her gladius. Stark throws the 8-Ball at her which is exactly what she wants. She catches it in a special box. Brigitte tries to get it back, but Aelita flees with it.
Brigitte explains that she’s been seeing Blackburn recently. Aelita took Blackburn’s wife’s soul as leverage. Teddy Osterberg controls the Imp, and they are sure that Aelita is behind Osterberg. Teddy is a ghoul, he eats the dead. Stark heads for Osterberg’s just as it starts raining fish and birds.
When they get there, Candy is taken down quickly with a toxin that paralyzes Jades. Then Stark falls victim to a binding circle. Osterberg isn’t alone, either. He’s with Lula Hawks. Traven comes in but there’s not much he can do. Osterberg says he will eat Candy since he’s never eaten a Jade before. Lula says that Stark is hers. She reveals that she was one of the white supremacists who followed Josef back in Sandman Slim. She was in love with him and Stark cut off his head and handed it to her. Since then she’s been plotting her revenge. Osterberg also explains that he controls ghost girl with a piece of her skull.
Lula brings out a can of gasoline, intending to burn Stark, but then Cherry opens a hole behind Osterberg and he falls into it, dropping the skull. Lula fires down into the hole, killing Osterberg, and Traven takes the opportunity to smash her with the dropped skull. She falls and he uses his sin-eating ability to fill her with sin which takes her down and, he suspects, kills her. He helps get Stark out of the circle then goes to help Candy. Stark smashes the skull freeing the ghost girl, then he uses the gasoline and the house’s gas supply to set it on fire.
Stark ends by visiting Mr. Muninn, his sometime supplier of mystical goods, and convinces him to become Lucifer. He’s part of God, after all. It seems only fitting. Since Muninn owes Stark a favor, he agrees. Muninn also removes the bullets from Stark’s body and reintegrates him with his angel half. They’re no longer separate voices anymore, just one integrated whole.
In the end, Stark returns to the Bamboo House of Dolls (now packed again) with his friends. The future is uncertain—they feel the old gods will return and there’s someone in Hell still gunning for him, but at least he’s back home.
What does Kadrey have in store for Sandman Slim next? I bet it has something to do with the old gods. Feel free to speculate if you feel like it in the comments.
To leave a comment