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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
Dead Set - Richard Kadrey

What's up with the cute, companionable scene of a girl and her dog that's depicted on the cover? Because, erm, that's sooo not what happens in this book.

Anyway...our teenage heroine, Zoe, is, no surprise, not in a happy place. A few months back, her father dropped dead of a heart attack, and she and Mom had to leave their idyllic home in the suburbs (complete with a tree-filled yard) and move to the grungy inner city. She and Mom are living hand-to-mouth. Her mother, a talented graphic designer has been out of the workforce for years, and struggling to find a job. Meanwhile, Dad's life insurance company is doing the evil corporate thing and pretending her father never existed, and therefore, refusing to pay out the claim.

In lieu of letting herself feel anything and subsequently fall apart, Zoe is pretty much sleepwalking through life.

All she knew was that not talking made not crying easier and not crying was all that held the world together.

One day, while ditching school and wandering about town, she stumbles on a vintage music store, which has a special back room filled with strange records. The proprietor, the rather reptilian Emmett, tells her the discs are literally records of dead peoples' lives. He plugs her into a device called an Animagraph and lets her "listen/see" one woman's life, and then drops the bombshell...

He has a record of her father's life. And she can listen to it--for a price.

For the heartbroken teen, the experience is like crack. She wants more. Next up, the chance to actually visit her father in Iphigene, land of the dead. But when her "brother" Valentine, who only interacts with her in dreams, warns her to be wary of Emmett, she cheats Emmett on the payment. Unaware of Zoe's deceit, Emmett lets Zoe visit Dad. Although the experience is wonderful -- good times in an idyllic city by the sea -- Zoe decides she must rescue her father's record from the manky old shop and its creepy proprietor.

When she returns to the shop the next day, this time to buy her father's record, Emmett refuses to admit her, telling her he knows he was cheated.

That night, desperate to retrieve her father's record, she sneaks out at midnight, and follows Emmett home, through a subterranean maze of sewers and tunnels beneath the city, and emerges once again in Iphigene. Except this Iphigene isn't the cheerful city she visited previously, but more like the offspring of Beirut, Detroit, and an M.C. Escher drawing.

Her dad, and brother, Valentine, are lost souls trapped in this horrible place, and now, so too, may be Zoe.

Dead Set is the kind of novel where a strong voice makes up for other shortcomings. Zoe sounds like teen, but with the wise-for-her-years edge that lends for pointed observations of the world.

On the first day at the new school Zoe learned its real name: Show World High, the other students called it, for the strip club a few blocks away on O'Farrell Street. The place didn't look much like a school or a club, she thought. More like a supervillain bunker, without the death rays or computers.

Zoe is street smart, but still naive and pig-headed enough to think she can pull one over on the likes of Emmett. She plunges into dangerous situations, but her impulsiveness manages to avoid the taint of Too Stupid to Live. In a perilous world, dangerous to dead and living, pursued by antagonist, Queen Hecate and her minions, Zoe scrambles from one scary situation to the other. The narrative is often tense and exciting, and the mishmash of folklore and magic is delightful.

The novel, however, for all its strengths, had a slight flatness. For all that Zoe seemed an active protagonist, she was in some ways merely swept along by the story's events, without clear agency, especially once she returns to Iphigene. At that point, she doesn't really have a clear plan, and just sort of trips from one misadventure to the other. I appreciate that this is probably realistic, what actually happens to most of us on a day-to-day basis, and certainly what would occur in a crisis. Nevertheless, part of my brain expects the protagonist to do something more, uh, heroic. Preferably a climax that doesn't involve the heroine accidentally discovering the antagonist's kryptonite. (The result being an ending the reeked of Deus Ex Machina.)

Dead Set was a enjoyable escape with shades of Neil Gaiman in the storytelling. While it isn't a keeper, it makes me interested in Kadrey's other novels.