The Short Version: Spademan has returned to his usual work (killer for hire) after the events of Shovel Ready – but when his next target wakes up out of the limn to say that somebody killed somebody for real on the inside, he stays his box cutter and begins to investigate. But this plot is bigger than he ever could’ve foreseen and the reality that society is clinging to, both in the real world and the limn, might be far less stable than anybody thought…
The Review: I like it when a sequel builds on the successes of the previous book. That seems like a silly or simple thing to say, but think about it: how often does a sequel just rehash what came before, especially in the world of ‘genre’ fiction? Maybe there’s a bit of character development, certainly a new setting… but, I mean, Dan Brown makes gazillions off of pretty much reusing the same storyline over and over again with a different cultural touchstone to make it seem brand new. So I was happy to see that Adam Sternbergh built on his good, if perhaps a little run-of-the-mill, near-dystopic thriller debut with the follow-up.
He doesn’t spend too much time refreshing readers on what happened in the previous volume and, quite wonderfully, he doesn’t need to: Spademan jumps quite vividly back into the reader’s mind, as though he never left. This half-life New York is oddly compelling even as it terrifies a New York reader and I spent my days reading this novel looking at the city and imagining what it would look like as a ghost of its current self. When Spademan meets the Nurse character in Astor Place, just around the corner from my job, I couldn’t help but step off the train and take a minute before walking into the office, just to look around and wonder. And shiver, even.
I also appreciated Sternbergh’s willingness to mess with the structure he’d put in place in the first novel. “You can’t die in the limn” was a pretty crucial piece of information, for several reasons – and so to blow that up would mean a shitstorm of serious magnitude. He also delivers an interesting backstory around the guys who were pushing the limits of what could happen in the limn – that’s how they created bedhopping, the creepy voyeur thing of peeping on somebody else’s dream, and so it seems logical that somebody might’ve pushed too far. In the midst of a major battle over privacy and encryption, this felt like a particularly timely development.
Speaking of timely, I can’t get too deep into this for fear of spoilers but… I was impressed by Sternbergh’s engagement in the political side of things, both on a global and a municipal level. The mayoral election, sure – but also grappling with the latent racism and xenophobia in this country that is just waiting for an excuse to pop out. Just look at every candidate (although few remain) in the Republican primary and tell me that you couldn’t see a world where, after another attack on New York City, the government just turned its back when Muslims/Arab-Americans were attacked in retaliation. The ending of this novel nearly sickened me – not because it was bad or scary but because it felt so imminently plausible.
Moving back to the writing itself, Sternbergh continues to function best when he’s moving things along. This is probably a symbiotic development along with the short, terse prose: Sternbergh doesn’t mince words but, more specifically, Spademan doesn’t. There’s a definite difference and I noticed it far more this time: the author is specifically modulating his voice to create the character’s. I know that sounds like something obvious – of course authors do that – but, for whatever reason, it struck me this time that Sternbergh was crafting these punchy short sentences and making them feel organic. Perhaps it’s just that he’s been writing longer, now – book two after all – but it helped make the book flow as fast as a speeding express train, not unlike the altogether excellent limn location of one half of the final showdown.
Sternbergh also doesn’t stray too far from his noir intentions: there are the uniformed goons, the mysterious dame, the damsel in distress, and a reveal near the end straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Things are always bigger than they seem in this kind of story and I suppose some elements could be considered predictable – and I did catch at least one of them, about the reality of two siblings – but honestly I couldn’t be sure. The political machinations, especially, kept me on my toes the entire time and the utterly chilling ending final conversation between Boonce and Spademan is terrific stuff, setting up a further Spademan novel (should Sternbergh grace us with one) but also rounding out some questions that’d lingered from the first novel about just how… well, I won’t spoil it. But the thing that chills me most about that conversation and about the books in general is just how plausible they are. Our society is one slip-up away from total destruction and Sternbergh’s minor apocalypse feels like one that could very easily happen. The rest of the world might get on pretty okay – but New York, the center of the universe? What happens when this place falls apart? I think it could well look like this – but I sure as hell hope it doesn’t.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Sternbergh took everything I liked about the first book and dialed it up, expanded it, built on it, and turned out an all-around better novel. Spademan is still a compelling hitman-with-heart-of-gold and while the novel doesn’t transcend any of its genre trappings, it doesn’t need to: it’s a damn fun ride. It’s going to be quite some time before I shake the images of Atlantic Avenue, the showdown in the old NYT building, the limn-train, and several more… and by god I can’t wait for the next one.