Sunday, October 23, 2011

Aloha from Hell by Richard Kadrey

There’s a line from a Roger Ebert review that I read once that’s always stayed with me – I believe that it was from a review of Spice World – stating that a particular song was “absolutely perfect without actually being any good”.  So, not as much damning with faint praise as it is stabbing-with-a-broken-beer-bottle of faint praise.  I’m not trying to insult Aloha from Hell here, so take that in the spirit in which it is intended – this book is pretty lightweight, and you’re not going to find it on any Great Literature lists, but it’s pretty damn fun.

I don’t know a lot about Richard Kadrey other than what’s on his author’s blurb at the back of the book, and based on his picture he looks like he could walk into some scary bar, start a fight, and beat the asses of a whole bunch of people.  I mention that because this seems to be something of a theme in his work, and perhaps it’s from personal experience.  I don’t know, maybe he’s really into breeding rare orchids and tea ceremonies or something, but he just looks like a pretty tough guy, and they do say to write about what you know.

I doubt, though, that Kadrey was ever personally involved in a ring of magicians led by a sociopath who betrayed him and sent him down bodily into Hell, where he was forced for eleven years to work as an arena pit fighter, before escaping and returning to Earth for revenge.  This is the story of Sandman Slim, which followed the adventures of one James “Sandman Slim” Stark as he proceeded to shoot, beat, stab, and explode everyone who got between him and sweet, sweet vengeance.  Then in the sequel, Kill the Dead, Sandman Slim thwarts a zombie invasion of Los Angeles, again by shooting, beating, stabbing, magicking, etc.  Aloha From Hell is the third volume of this urban fantasy series, and if you read the foregoing paragraph you can pretty accurately tell what this one’s going to contain (hint:  within the first couple of chapters Slim kills a demon while committing a burglary, jumps out a window to escape and then has rough sex with a cute female monster following a brief date at a chicken and waffle restaurant.)

Now at this point, you’re probably thinking one of three things:  1) that sounds pretty awesome; 2) that sounds pretty silly; 3) that sounds pretty silly and yet also kind of awesome.  If you’re in the first category, then go out and get these right away, you won’t regret it.  If you’re in the second, then you’re not going to miss a huge cultural touchstone here, so go back to making margin notes in The Corrections with head held high.  If you’re like me and in the third category, then you’ll probably enjoy this, although you may be embarrassed to admit it if you haven’t taken an oath like I have to blog about whatever it is you read.

For whatever reason, I hadn’t really read much fantasy literature up until the past several years, and although I know that the urban fantasy genre is increasingly popular, I haven’t really read all that much of it either.  I am a big fan of Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, though, and the reason I checked out Sandman Slim in the first place is that it’s been a while since there’s been one of those.  To compare these to another genre I’m familiar with, Mike Carey is playing the part of Raymond Chandler writing about a private detective with a complex inner life, while Kadrey is channeling Mickey Spillane and writing about an angry guy who goes around breaking things.

I think Kadrey’s a pretty good writer, though, and I certainly tore right through this book.  If you’re dealing with this kind of setup, e.g., gods, demons, fallen angels, Hell, etc., then you have to put some thought into universe construction as well.  What does it mean to fight a demon, for instance?  Under most conceptions, they’re already dead (or at least spirits, same sort of thing).  So can anyone fight Beelzebub with a riot baton and a Saturday night special?  For that matter, is it possible for some junkie to get lucky and take out the Lord of Hosts behind a liquor store with a butterfly knife one dark evening?  What does it mean to kill a ghost?  This only becomes increasingly difficult to manage as we learn more about the cosmos; it was OK for Milton to describe the Earth as the only concern around, but when you know there are billions of galaxies containing who knows how many worlds then it doesn’t make all that much sense to have everyone be focused on this one particular planet, and somewhat odd to suggest that angels and demons really care that much about it.

Kadrey has some answers for all this, and I have to say that it increases my regard for this work significantly.  In the first instance, anyone with the right equipment can in fact take out any particular entity, but in the case of the more powerful ones then “right equipment” turns out to be pretty substantial; and in the next instance anyone who dies who’s already dead (or who was never alive in the first place) goes to Tartarus.  This is a pretty scary concept since no one’s ever come back from there – this in a series where there’s basically a revolving door in Hell and people are coming and going all the time.

In the broader sense, it turns out that this series takes place in a Gnostic universe, which is a pretty reasonable decision.  It’s a pretty big belief system to summarize in a blog post, but some of the Gnostics believed that the universe was so shoddy that it could not have been made by God, but instead was made by someone else while God wasn’t looking (some of them even believed it was the devil).  Some of the other schools of thought suggested that God did it but didn’t have the omnimax characteristics ascribed by later religions.  When Sandman Slim ends up meeting the demiurge he asks, pretty reasonably, why he was left to suffer in Hell for all that time, and the demiurge thinks they’re getting into a discussion of the problem of evil, or why human suffering is allowed.  Not so, says Slim, why did you in particular allow me in particular to have that problem?  The demiurge’s answer is pretty cool and also explains why the universe is so big.  Incidentally, it turns out that God is pretty much an asshole.  I guess that’s not much of a surprise.

Now if I were to make some critiques here, and I’m going to, I’d have to say (other than the general silliness issue) that this book isn’t particularly accessible if you haven’t already read the first two.  In terms of demon killing equipment, Slim’s equipped with a na’at, which is sort of a chain-flail-whip-sword thing, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t really understand that from this book.  Likewise the key to the Room of Thirteen Doors, the black bone knife, and the angel in his head, plus a bunch of characters who just sort of show up.  I have to admit that even though I had read the two previous books I was a little hazy about some of these people and the various artifacts, and I’ve got a good memory for stuff like this.  If you read all three together it might flow a lot better.  The pacing’s also a little bit strange, since it kicks off really strong, then spins along for a while and then kind of hits a puzzling and anticlimactic climax.  I wouldn’t say it was disappointing exactly, but it certainly wasn’t what I’d been expecting given the novel so far or the general tone.

I’m not sure if Kadrey’s planning on writing any more of these or not; he basically ties up a lot of the outstanding issues that Slim’s had since day one.  He manages to make some peace with his dead girlfriend, get some additional revenge, and obtain a new job opportunity.  Nonetheless, he does still have some living enemies and there are some pretty obvious sequel hooks.  If there are more novels in this series then they’ll be much different than the first three for reasons which will be obvious if you read it.

Anyway, I don’t want to sell this too short by any means, as Kadrey’s prose is extremely if not compulsively readable and it’s really a lot of fun, probably one of the most straight-up entertaining books I’ve read so far this year.  It’s just so unapologetically goofy that I have to approve.  If you’re looking for depth this is probably not the place, although there are some surprising character moments to be found (and a reasonable solution to the problem of evil, at that).  I think that it might not be quite as strong as Kill the Dead, my vote for the standout of this particular trilogy, but I’m up for reading more about this crazy SOB Sandman Slim and I guess that’s really about as much as you can ever expect.

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