Dead Set by Richard Kadrey © 2013 Harper Voyager
Teenaged Zoe’s father, a former punk band roadie, recently died, and she’s been forced to move with her mother into a small apartment because the life insurance company hedges on paying the death benefits. Zoe feels outcast in her new school, which leads to her skipping school, which leads her to wander in an old record store where she finds classic vinyl of some of her father’s old bands. She also finds the record store’s secret room, which contains weird discs that play on an animagraph, producing a full sensory experience of a dead person’s life. What’s more, the secret room contains her father’s disc, and she is able to experience moments of his life! The intoxicating animagraph experiences are relatively cheap, too, costing Zoe only a lock of hair, a baby tooth, a drop of her blood . . .
So far, very cool. Dead Set had me envisioning a sell-your-soul-for-daddy tale with Zoe trading her former cutting addiction for animagraph addiction, and in the end, hopefully, some self-realization.
Nope. Instead, she follows the record store owner into a subterranean world, Iphigene, something like purgatory, where her father and would-have-been-but-for-a-miscarriage brother live, along with millions of other dead people, under the cruel reign of Queen Hecate, who has stolen the sun from Iphigene’s sky, and sends cobras and vicious dogs to torture the citizens of Iphigene.
If you’re thinking what the fu**?, so was I. It had to be some kind of metaphor. Eventually, Zoe would return to the real world and face real problems. Zoe trying to dethrone Hecate and return Iphigene to its former “glory,” couldn’t be what the story was all about.
Afraid it was. Now, the premise story was very good, and the Iphigene story was okay, too. It was exciting, and I felt genuine emotion when Zoe helped her father and would-have-been brother. It just came off like Kadrey slapped two different story ideas together for no reason. Plus, Zoe’s cutting problem and the insurance problem had no ultimate bearing on the outcome, other than Zoe’s deft use of a straight razor against her mythical foes, which was a disturbing way to involve self-harm.
The two halves of Dead Set, though disjointed, were shelf-worthy in their own right, making this a close call. The tipping point for me was Kadrey’s treatment of self-harm, using razor-wielding as the way to vanquish your demons. That really bothered me, and keeps me from recommending Dead Set.