* Prices may differ from that shown
I really enjoy urban fantasy but with one or two notable exceptions, I do tend to confine myself to novels by female authors in the genre. In an attempt to broaden my experience, I looked around for books written by male writers and eventually opted to read this novel which had received some pretty fulsome praise from both male and female readers and I found the synopsis intriguing enough to give it a go.
James Stark aka Sandman Slim was a gifted young magician but he fell in with the wrong crowd, the leader of which betrayed him and Stark found himself condemned to a life in Hell, literally, where he was the demon, Azazel's mortal slave, forced into gladiatorial combat for the entertainment of Hell's residents and then, later used by Azazel as his hit man. He's endured the torments of Hell for eleven years but when Stark manages to steal a key which opens any door, he escapes and finds himself back in that Hell on earth known as Los Angeles without a cent to his name, slightly singed clothing and he's Hell bent on exacting revenge upon all those he holds responsible .
From the very beginning of this book, it was obvious that this was going to be on the very dark side of the urban fantasy spectrum. To say James Stark is an antihero is putting it mildly. Here is a man who cares nothing for himself or his survival. He is simply fuelled by his insatiable desire to be revenged on the group of his former friends who were not only responsible for his time in Hell but also murdered his girlfriend into the bargain. Stark's full history isn't immediately told but is drip fed to the reader throughout the story so that by the end we understand what happened before and the full reasons for his determination to wreak his revenge.
Despite this single minded vendetta and a marked lack of a moral compass, there is still a spark of humanity left buried deep and though Stark is a violent and unforgiving man, it's possible to understand his motivation and almost like him. He has a bit of a smart mouth which his eleven years in Hell don't seem to have taught him is more of a liability than anything else and though it seriously annoys his enemies, I found his wry take on his situation quite endearing at times.
He's aided and abetted in his bid for revenge by Allegra, a young woman who manages the video store that Stark makes into his headquarters (after he's sliced off the head of Kasabian, the owner!) The description of Allegra isn't instantly appealing. She has something of a Sinead O'Connor haircut going on and her dress style is LA grunge, but she's a smart cookie and I warmed to her pretty quickly. Although Stark doesn't acknowledge the fact, he does needs her help.
"For eleven years, I've been worked over and abused in ways you can't imagine by things you don't want to know about. I've killed every kind of vile, black-souled, dead-eyed monster nightmare that ever made you piss your pj's and cry for mommy in the middle of the night. I kill monsters and, if I wanted, I could say a word and burn you to powder from the inside out. I can tear any human you ever met to wet rags with my bare hands. Give me one reason why I could possibly need you?"
The reason is that time has moved on since Stark descended into the bowels of Hell and he hasn't a clue how to deal with modern LA which includes knowing how to get hold of or use a mobile phone!
The story is populated not only with magicians but all kinds of creatures of fantasy from vampires and fallen angels to nephilim and other lesser known paranormals. The choice of LA as the backdrop for the novel is perfect. The author's version of Los Angeles paints a picture of a bleak and soulless city populated by its own human versions of vampires and ghosts. The vampires being the moguls who feed off those who flock to the city in the hope of success and the ghosts, all those who never quite made it. This is a Tinsel Town that's been well and truly tarnished.
I have to say that there were a couple of occasions when the narrative descended into the decidedly profane, both of the religious and the secular kind. Even I, a total non-believer, was slightly shocked by some of the profane religious imagery conjured up and for that reason, I think anyone with deeply held Christian beliefs would be well advised to leave this one alone. As there's also a great many references made to casual drug taking as well as lots of swearing, blasphemy and extreme violence, this is definitely not for the fainthearted. This is not for fans of Twilight!
All that being said and much against my better judgment, I loved this book even though some of the content makes for such difficult reading. This is a bleak story set in a bleak town with little hope of a happy-ever-after but it grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go until the book is ended.
I've never read any Jim Butcher books but some reviews liken this to his Dresden Files series but with knobs on. All I can say is if you enjoy well written dark fantasy that never descends into the twee or mawkish, you'll love this book as much as I did. It's the first in a series of (currently) five books and I understand that the series has been optioned by an American TV company. It will make an awesome TV series.
The paperback for this first outing for Stark is quite hard to come by but the hardback is currently on offer at a reasonable £6.99 and the Kindle version is £3.99.
Publisher: Harper Voyager