Dead Set by Richard Kadrey is an urban fantasy novel that is about a teenager named Zoe who has been on the run with her mother since her father died. In an effort to avoid all of the bullshit that life has been throwing at them lately, and to deal with having no friends, she whisks away to meet her late brother in the realm of her dreams. But then one day, Zoe has an incredible experience with a dark temptation that will change her fate, as well as the fate of her dead brother and father within a different realm, in terrifyingly unexpected ways.
I saw Dead Set at the library and felt the premise sounded perfect for a good thrill. After reading it, I feel that it was quite fitting for the spooky Halloween season, but it didn’t deliver the scary chills that I was hoping to experience. Regardless, it is a fairly decent, dark urban fantasy that I would recommend to fans of the genre.
The best part about the novel is the writing style. It’s supremely easy to read and even easier to get lost in with the imaginative world-building and atmosphere for the environments that Zoe encounters, whether it’s the city that she’s currently living in with her mum, or the realm of dreams that she visits to see her brother, Valentine. The settings transported me to them almost as if I was standing beside Zoe while she’s there chatting or doing whatever she’s doing in the respective situation. Because everything is decidedly sinister and creepy, it did give me the heebie-jeebies on occasion and fill me with an air of despair for things to come. I like reading books where I can get so involved on a near-physical level; it makes for quite the interactive experience.
Zoe is another excellent part of the book. She’s quite mortal in terms of her emotions being all over the place and her feeling rather angsty with constantly being on the move from one place to another and dealing with the grief of losing her father, who instilled within her a passion for music—classic punk rock—that he had when he was alive. I saw her suffering and felt her frustrations at being a loner and having a dysfunctional relationship with her only remaining parent. Hell, I even identified with some of her negativity. But because she is so human and young, and because her feelings are so raw and real, it becomes unbelievably effortless to empathise with her circumstances, thus making it even more challenging to not root for her.
Zoe knew she should tell her mother she loved her but she couldn’t do it because she didn’t really feel it. Where that feeling, and a lot of others, should be was a deep dark void.”
The book is character focused, but the bulk of that focus is subtle and rather implied. It can be easy to miss most of those cues the first time reading it due to all of these other apprehensive and freakish shit that is going on around her. The character’s struggles, as well as the lessons she learns and the fortitude that she gains out of her experiences, are the book’s biggest strength. The plot is original and fascinating, but ultimately it’s unpolished and ends up feeling somewhat far-fetched than anything else.
Initially, the journey that Zoe ends up going on—emotionally and physically—felt to me to be exquisitely imaginative and very riveting. However, the farther it took her from her home and her sentimental struggles, the more obscure and fragmented it started to feel. There were a couple of sections of the book, closer to the last one-third to one-fourth, where I felt as if the story was taking one ridiculous turn after another for either shock value or to make the story feel longer, as well as give it a stronger purpose. This could very well be a case of it not being my cup of tea, yet, I feel that it’s about the storytelling inadequacies themselves instead of a personal distaste. There were just specific facets that felt random and pulled out of air in lieu of having a rational and natural lead-up to them. Honestly, the first half and middle were marvellously written, but the climax and conclusion were distinctly not well-written at all. Even with that said, there are tons of other great aspects that help alleviate the frustration that stems from the chunkiness and uncertainty that we get in the final thirty percent or so.
The book is wonderfully dark, as I mentioned earlier, but it’s also fantastically violent, graphic, and on more than one occasion very gruesome. The descriptions of the frightening things that Zoe encounters—the injuries, wounds, and other bloody things—is vivid and made my tummy turn a bit. It further contributes to the eerie and unsettling ambiance.
If you’re a fan of punk rock, particularly classic punk rock from the 70s and 80s, you will love the references made about music in this book. Zoe is a huge fan of records, which makes sense given the sorts of things her parents were involved with when they were younger, and reading about the different records, as well as the designs for those records was pretty fucking cool. She also very much lives up to the punk rock name with her persona and use of vulgarities. It’s an aesthetic that just complimented nearly everything about Dead Set.
While Dead Set isn’t a perfect book that will become the epitome of all urban fantasy, it has good writing, a female protagonist that you can’t help but root for, an offbeat premise, and a whimsy entertaining factor that compels you to keep reading and get invested. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is in search of a decent addition to the urban fantasy genre that will take you away from the likes of Jim Butcher, Seanan McGuire, and Laurel K. Hamilton. It doesn’t fit a mould, by far, and that’s what made it so bloody great.