Dead Set is an urban fantasy novel by Richard Kadrey, author of the Sandman Slim series, Butcher Bird and some other stuff that I haven't read yet and is therefore irrelevant. (Metrophage and a boat-load of short stories).
This review will contain spoilers, Egyptian mythology pedantry, a lot of griping, and a hearty recommendation to pick up the book because no seriously it's good, it just could've been better.
Okeedokee, non-spoilery synopsis first:
Zoe is a sixteen year, ex-psychologically disturbed old girl getting over the recent passing of her father. She and her mother have moved into a small apartment where they struggle to make ends meet. Dad had been the breadwinner of the family, and Mom's been out of the professional world for so long that the jobs aren't biting. On top of that, the insurance companies all seem to have lost Mr. Zoe's Dad's paperwork, meaning no help is coming from there.
As usual for her, the only comfort Zoe has is dreaming. In her dream tree house, she and her dream-brother, Valentine, hang out and have fun. Valentine, it seems, has been there in her dream world ever since she was a little kid, and when she was really little, he used to be her imaginary friend. But soon after the death of her father, black dogs start invading her dreams, and someone is on the hills surrounding the tree house, watching them.
In the real world, after an incident in the school cafeteria, Zoe ditches class, wanders around, and finds an unusual record shop. Both Zoe and her dad were huge old-music aficionados, so she of course goes in. Aside from the usual fare, there is a back room, and in the back room are ghostly records of people's lives. People off the street never find the door unless they need to (or something needs them to). The store's owner, Mr. Ammut tells, and shows, her how the lives can play be played, and how the can listener experience them. While not every dead person's life is in there, there is quite a selection. And of course Zoe finds the record of someone very important to her in the pile. She can have it. . . if she's willing to pay a price that has nothing to do with cash and all to do with control.
What follows is a mad run through the purgatory-esque Iphigene (this book's version of Duat, I guess) which is one part scummy city slum and one part hell as Zoe, with the help of her not-so-dream-brother Valentine and her father, has to escape from black dogs, winged snakes, the goddess of the moon and witchcraft, and her son, who want to do more than just kill her.
SPOILERS (and pedantic bitchery) FROM HERE ON OUT, FOLKS.
I liked this book. It's very easy to read, almost weirdly so. It felt oddly simple compared to his other ones, but maybe that's because it's just a once-off book (as of now, anyways) with a simple premise: a young girl who wants to be with, and then later save, her father. Nothing wrong with that- I finished it in a few hours, so it's a good book if you've got to wait at the DMV or something.
Okay, there is bitching, and here it is.
QUIT DROPPING YOUR PLOT THREADS, MR. KADREY.
Like, oh my God, he does this in every book, it seems (though not so much noticeable in the Sandman Slim series as that one is ongoing so it's like he still has a chance to tie up those loose threads) but seriously!
Don't get me wrong, I like his stuff. I love his stuff. I want Kadrey to sign all my books of his and I don't know punch me in the face or something, but one thing he does over and over again is this: it feels like he always has plot threads that he starts, forgets, then brushes aside-- if he acknowledges them at all.
The records are probably the biggest one. The main biggy-big-big thing about these records is that they are connected with the life they belonged to, and that if one is destroyed, it destroys the soul of whoever it belonged to, eradicating them completely from existence. That fits because, well, Ammit/Ammut. That's sort of his MO.
Keep that in mind.
It's stated that Ammut and Hecate have been trying to get a human- any old human- down to Iphigene so that they can get Hecate reborn into a new body. Supposedly this is so she can take over the world from the topside, but knowing how batshit she is, she'd probably go off and join the running of the bulls and go skydiving and eat chocolate with maybe only an occasional murder spree. The way they lure people in is with the records. If a person can see the record shop, and the person can find the special records, then they are a candidate for the rebirth. Furthermore, since everybody everywhere has lost someone at some point, Ammut can manipulate that loss and curiosity to his advantage. He doesn't charge money, he charges hair, teeth, and blood. Ammut tried earlier to get control of Zoe- each use of the weird ghost-record-playing-machine cost her something- hair, blood, and a tooth. With these, Ammut can control-
Okay wait no, now the records are the second biggest dropped plot thread, what the hell about Zoe's hair? The first time Zoe uses the machine, she gives Ammut a lock of her hair. The second time, she gives him a fake tooth, and he never accepted the blood, but he did get her hair, and it was never mentioned again, even when Valentine was warning her about how Ammut could use those to control her.
So okay that's another one on the list.
Anyways, the records. They'd be used to lure people into giving Ammut control and then he could lead them down to Iphigene, right? Wrong. The trip to Iphegene Zoe takes (she follows Ammut sneakily of her own volition, thinking he doesn't know she's there) was some sort of test that apparently not a lot of people make it to and nobody but her have actually made it out alive to the other side.
So. . . is Ammut just really incompetent? They've been at this for how long now?
Then later we see Hecate's minions actually making the life-recordings by sucking the memories out of new souls. It's hinted that Hecate probably listens to them.
And that's the last we hear of them.
Okay, I'll give you a second. Did you notice what was wrong with that? I just mentioned every time the records were mentioned. Didja notice anything off?
NOBODY DESTROYS A RECORD.
Nobody mentions destroying a record.
Nobody threatens to, or is afraid of someone destroying a record. Chekhov's freaking gun, you can't drop the "eradicate anyone's existence at whim" bomb and then NOT FOLLOW UP. Especially when the person directing the bomb (Ammut)'s main purpose is to eradicate people's existences!
Every time Zoe runs into her mom worrying over insurance papers, her mom says that the companies are acting as though Zoe's dad didn't exist. Like he never existed. Like something, I don't know, BROKE HIS FUCKING RECORD.
But no, his record is. . . fine? presumably? I don't know, actually. Zoe follows Ammut down the sewer into the underworld in the first place because she's afraid he will hurt her dad's record. I guess it's back at the shop still, then. But in any case, why keep saying that if it wasn't some kind of foreshadowing? A red herring? It wasn't a red herring because we knew that this problem was happening long before Zoe met Ammut and long before she caught a glimpse of her dad's life-record. We know the record was perfectly intact, and the insurance company still effed it up somehow.
Also, they mention Iphigene supposedly means sacrifice, as that's what Hecate has turned the place into: a place where souls are forced to sacrifice parts of themselves to feed her minions. That's not entirely accurate as the name comes from Iphigenia, and while she was sacrificed (she got better! Sorta. In some versions), her name means strong born or born strong or something like that. It's from the iphios = strong and genes = born.
Though Valentine was the one who said it, so maybe he's not entirely up to date with his Greek.
Alright, another one that may just be my needless pedantry and should probably not be read by anyone because it's full of quibbling: Zoe's eyes.
People in-story keep mentioning them as being cat-like eyes. It's not a constant thing, but it happens enough times throughout the book that it's noticeable. It sticks out in the mind of the reader-- especially if they have any previous knowledge of Egyptian mythology. Ammut, especially, mentions them on multiple occasions, as does Hecate herself.
Now, in this work Hecate represents the moon and enemy of the sun. The underworld is in complete and utter chaos because Hecate locked the sun away, took over, and has stopped the buses (like I said, it's set up like a scummy city) that take souls out of this purgatory onto the next place, but has kept the buses bringing new people in in working order. She utterly hates the living, and she feeds the souls of people to her dogs/snakes.
In fact, Hecate in this one has a thing for dogs and snakes. Ammut, who is her son, is presented as being-- well first he's a dude which is already weird because Ammit is actually a girl devourer of souls but whatevs-- but he is also presented as being a snake-headed man.
Now, all of this is possible only because she got rid of the sun, which mythologically speaking would be Ra, the leader of the Ennead. Ra's not in this book but stick with me I swear there's a point.
Ra's main loyal warrior lady was the goddess Sekhmet, who was a woman with the head of a lion-- AKA a big fucking cat. She's a solar goddess, possibly the daughter of Ra, and in Egyptian mythology one of her big jobs was to fight Apophis/Apep, a bigass snake demon who wanted to eat everything. In the mythology, snakes and cats do not get along, and Kadrey knows this, and that's obviously why he made those references, to hint that Zoe and the snakes were not going to get along.
So why did nothing come of it?
I was expecting Zoe to turn out to be Sekhmet's incarnation, or free Sekhmet from some prison, or maybe not Sekhmet but Bast or Tefnut, or maybe Ma'at as she's the goddess of order and continually has to make sure the universe doesn't get jacked to hell (which is basically the entire premise of this story), or that heck any one of the other Egyptian deities would get involved. They mention at the beginning of the book all the other deities who judge/care for the dead (when Zoe's at home, there are handy Egyptian mythology infodumps while she's watching TV), so what are they up to? How does Anubis feel that Hecate-- a flipping Greek goddess, mind you-- hijacked the dead? What about all those judges who weigh hearts and stuff?
Nope! Nada, zip, ziltcho.
People keep calling her eyes catlike and then do nothing at all that involves cats. Seriously, no cats anywhere in a book with an Egyptian mythology streak. Hecate is presented as the only goddess around- no gods either, unless you count Ammut, and nobody should count Ammut because he is apparently the weakest weaksauce devourer of souls in the world, since he can be taken out by a sixteen year old girl with a flash bulb and a razor. No kidding, part way through the book he grabs her and Zoe straight up cuts a motherfucker. It's said that he's probably just not used to anyone actually putting up a fight, but I don't know, I think he's just a wimp and his mom covers for him.
Anyhoo. Yeah. it felt like something that was supposed to be building up to something that got cut in the final draft.
On an entirely different note, I love love love love love the relationship between Zoe and Valentine.
Like, I don't know if it's because I'm close to my own brother, or what, but I was really digging that character. It's revealed SPOILER ALERT that he really is Zoe's brother who was miscarried before she was born. Since Hecate been in power since waaaay before he died, he's spent his whole un-life looking after Zoe from the edges of reality. Most of the time, he's the sensible one who gives her good advice and they have oodles of fun hanging out in the tree house, but once Zoe's in the land of the dead, she can see that despite him technically being older, he never had a chance to actually grow up and he still has a lot of little-kid-like qualities despite also being the responsible-play-it-safe one, and he and the father both really really care about her and spend the whole time trying to get her back home and trying to convince her to leave them, and they keep acting as distractions for bad guys so she can get away and asdgjfadfbadfg I love this. I love the concern and compassion they have, but also the genuine fear they have. They make an otherwise silly premise feel threatening just because they're so freaked out about Zoe getting hurt.
Shit, I just liked Valentine a lot. I have an understanding of older siblings who worry about the younger ones and try desperately to keep them out of trouble.
A few of the themes that show up in Kadrey's other works show up in this one. The underworld (usually hell, but in this case Iphegene) being taken over by hostile forces? Yep. The idea that there are levels of death- you can die in life, and then be killed again in the afterlife? Yep. Death as a poorly run bureaucracy? Yep.
Anyways, all pointless complaining aside, this is a good book. While I didn't find Zoe that engaging a character in her own right until the middle, the characters around her are brilliant, and, as always, Kadrey has a nifty knack for setting up unsettling worlds.