Sixteen-year-old Zoe has had a rough time of it, what with the sudden death of her father and her own mental breakdown over it. Now, having had to move to a rundown apartment building in the city, she and her mom are trying to make a new start. While Mom looks for work, Zoe starts at a new school and tries to keep herself together.
Zoe’s only respite from the day-to-day drudgery of money woes, depression and high school is when she sleeps and gets to see Valentine, her dream brother. But lately there’s a dark, ominous presence that’s been invading their dreamscape.
Meanwhile, in the waking world, Zoe comes across a strange record shop. The proprietor is a weird sort — one of those types you expect to be selling a cursed monkey’s paw or a lamp in dire need of polishing. And in fact, the shopkeeper does have something to sell.
In the back room is a collection of strange-looking records that hold the souls of some of the deceased. He offers Zoe the opportunity to speak with her dead father, but of course there’s a price attached and it’s not money he’s interested in (or the other thing, if that’s where your mind is going). No, at first he wants a lock of hair. From there on, his requests become more intrusive.
DEAD SET marks Richard Kadrey’s foray into the YA fantasy field. I’ve been pretty vocal about my love for Kadrey’s SANDMAN SLIM series. Although Kadrey was an accomplished author before striking gold with Slim (METROPHAGE, BUTCHER BIRD and a few others), this is the first novel of his outside the series that I’ve read. My feelings on it are mixed.
I never thought Kadrey was redefining the urban fantasy genre with Sandman Slim. I just thought it was good old-fashioned pulp-action fun — a cool mash-up of Sam Spade, Conan the Barbarian and Dr. Strange. Kadrey excels at writing a sarcastic, tough guy protagonist, but his real strength lies in the rich backdrop to his stories, a mixture of well-defined mythology and meticulous set dressing. The problem with DEAD SET is that it highlights Kadrey’s weaknesses as a storyteller.
Despite Zoe’s love of old punk bands and her past as a “cutter,” her character remains a cipher to the reader, as does most of the supporting cast. Kadrey attempts to give the cast members quirks that are supposed to make them feel fleshed-out and three-dimensional to the reader, but instead it repeatedly strikes a false note.
Example: In one scene, a classmate of Zoe’s makes a reference to James Dean. Now, does any 16-year-old today know who James Dean was? Okay, let’s say you buy the premise that one would. Is it believable that Zoe would get the reference?
In another scene, Zoe describes an area as resembling Coney Island. As it’s well-established that she lives in San Francisco, and I’m assuming has been a West Coaster for her entire life (because the author never tells me otherwise), I found it odd that she knew what Coney Island looks like. Did her parents take her there once after a cross-country trip? Did she see pictures of it in a book? This point is never expounded upon and, therefore, the reader is left to either wonder about this tidbit or just swallow it unconditionally and move on.
If it seems like I’m nitpicking, well … yeah, I am. As the father of an 11-month-old, my reading time is limited. So if I’m going to invest my precious non-housework, non-job, non-diaper-changing minutes into a book, the author better damn well have crossed his “T”s and dotted his “I”s.
But it’s more than that. I’m an author, too, and I know what goes into making the sausage (so to speak). Folks, let me pull back the curtain a moment and give you a glimpse behind the scenes:
When a writer tells a story and decides on his/her main viewpoint, it’s a bit like role-playing. You have to be that character in the moment. You can’t inject your own experiences and memories into the character unless the character is really a fictionalized version of you, the author. Sure, you can flavor the character with little bits of yourself, but if you’re not ultimately true to the character, it comes across as fake.
Some sidestep this by writing the same main character over and over. As much as I enjoy Nelson DeMille’s books, his protagonist is essentially interchangeable. The guy from THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER sounds exactly like the guy from PLUM ISLAND who sounds exactly like the guy from THE GOLD COAST, etc. I would guess (since I’ve never met the man) that all of those guys sound exactly like DeMille. Which is fine because that particular character works in the context of the stories that he tells. But if DeMille were to write from the viewpoint of a 16-year-old girl, I think he would find himself at a great disadvantage.
Getting back to DEAD SET, it’s not just the characters that ring false. The story is uneven and changes direction halfway through the book. While the first half begins with the old trope of the mysterious shopkeeper offering to grant the heroine’s fondest wish, but for a price (and is that price worth it?), it then abruptly shifts into a full-on fantasy/adventure when Zoe enters the land of the dead in search of her father and has to contend with all sorts of horrific creatures and scenarios, with a mixture of Egyptian-style mythology and steampunk-esque settings thrown in.
The second half, which is essentially a Goth version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, is much better than the first, mainly because Kadrey is able to play to his strengths as a storyteller. Namely, he gets to describe horrific-looking creatures and settings, and write action sequences that don’t give you much time to stop and think.
That’s a good thing, by the way, because the plot twist that changes the direction of the book doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. I won’t give it away here, but needless to say, if you have ever been that person who watches a movie or reads a book and wonders, “Wait a minute: Why did the villain go to all that trouble to do that when he could have simply ..?,” you’ll find yourself doing that here.
Or maybe not. Maybe I’m overthinking the whole thing. Maybe DEAD SET is a wonderful YA fantasy novel that your tween daughter will love to read and Tim Burton is already planning to turn into a stop-motion film. But I don’t really buy that and neither should you.
Richard Kadrey’s DEAD SET is an interesting failure with a stronger second half, but not strong enough to save it. I give the author credit for wanting to try something different, but meanwhile, I’ll be over here waiting patiently for the next Sandman Slim novel. —Slade Grayson