Book Review: Dead Set, By Richard Kadrey

Cover of Dead SetEarlier in 2013 I reviewed the first book in Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series.  I liked it, but I mentioned that it had a problem with overusing the “women in refrigerators trope”.  The book was full of interesting women, but I couldn’t tell if future books would let them take more central roles, or continue to kill them off to further the hero’s journey.

So, I was excited to learn that Richard Kadrey just wrote a new book, Dead Set, with a female protagonist, and having read the book I can tell you that both the book and the protagonist are great.

Here’s a few quick highlights with regard to why I think this is such a great book in terms of gender:

  • There’s no romance.  I love romance.  Most of what I read is romance.  But I always find it refreshing to encounter a story about a woman that doesn’t involve romance, and it’s especially refreshing in a YA.  There are only so many love triangles I can handle, and I think it’s quite feminist to suggest that a young woman might possibly be thinking about things other than romantic love.
  • There’s a gay best friend whose sexuality is not an issue.  When the wonderful Absynthe kisses Zoe, Zoe isn’t shocked or amused or appalled – she’s just the wrong orientation.  There’s no angst about it and the girls seem to move quite comfortably into platonic friendship.
  • There’s a great mix of mundane and supernatural horrors.  I liked it that the things that cause Zoe the most problems are mundane.  Her father’s death is due to natural causes.  I was sure that the problems with the insurance were part of supernatural events, but they seem to be due to good old-fashioned bureaucracy.  This makes it even more powerful when the supernatural is involved – it feels more grounded and more scary.
  • Zoe is not a damsel in distress.  Well, sometimes she is.  But most what she does involves saving men who are in distress.
  • Zoe’s body takes a lot of punishment, but she is not sexually threatened, and in a literary world in which rape or the threat of rape is constantly employed as an easy way to show peril, this was unbelievably refreshing.  Zoe is in peril because she’s a living person in search of the dead, not because she’s a girl.
  • There are lots of women.  Zoe’s mother is a strong character in her own right – a person with her own problems and her own past.  The villain is a woman.  Zoe has friendships with women.  The Bechdel test is passed over and over again!
  • Zoe doesn’t have superpowers.  she tough, she’s determined, and she’s smart except for when she has hopes of seeing or helping her loved ones – that tends to bring out the naive idiot in her.

I got to meet Richard Kadrey at ConVolution 2013.  I had read Sandman Slim beforehand specifically so that if I met him I wouldn’t sound like a moron.  Naturally, when I met him, I sounded like a moron anyway.  I have a serious star-struck problem when I meet authors I admire and I practically drool on their shoes.  It’s embarrassing.  But he was very patient with me and told me all about how he had various women and teenagers help him find Zoe’s voice.  His research shows – the book is told from the first-person perspective and Zoe is very convincing.  The plot is exciting and creative, and the imagery is suitably horrifying for a book about what is essentially Hell.  This is a standalone book and although it’s nice not to have to commit to a full series, I’ll miss Zoe now that the book is over.  Obviously I’m focusing on the feminist aspects of the book – I found them to be truly a breath of fresh air.  But it’s also a good, solid, compelling, scary story, gender politics aside!

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