Iíve read a few of Liz Williamsí short stories, so Iíve been something of a fan for a long time. Iíd never yet read one of her novels, though, so when I saw Snake Agent, the first book in the ďDetective Inspector ChenĒ series, I had to pick it up. Sheís always been an interesting writer, but how does her short story talent translate to novel form? Thankfully, very well. Her prose is just as good, and she creates an evocative setting as well. This is definitely a novel to pick up if you are looking for something really different.
Chen lives in Singapore Three sometime in the relatively near future (itís never said, but Iím thinking the late 2000s). The barriers between Heaven, Hell, and the ďrealĒ world are thin, and they all have to deal with each other. Chen is one of the only cops in Singapore Three who deals regularly with the celestial beings, and his colleagues tend to avoid him because heís had to deal with Hell too often. This time, the ghost of a murdered girl doesnít arrive in Heaven as itís supposed to, and the grieving mother comes to Chen to investigate why. Seneschal Zhu Irzh is a demon on Hellís Vice Squad, and heís tasked with tracking down an escaped dead prostitute from one of Hellís brothels. With both of them pulling at the same dead soul, conflict is inevitable, but they might end up working together to stop an even bigger conspiracy from one of Hellís highest, and most sinister, ministries - one that will combine demonic power and modern technology to wipe out millions.
I greatly enjoyed this novel, partially for the excellent characterization but also for the unique setting. Williams strongly evokes the Chinese atmosphere, and Iíve heard from other sources that she does so pretty accurately. Iím not personally that familiar with the details of Chinese culture, but it seems accurate to my limited knowledge. Most importantly, it feels right. She gets the mood down of an oppressed city, stifling heat (itís unclear whether thatís due to global warming or the proximity to Hell, or if thatís just Singaporeís climate) and a mix of high-end neighborhoods and downtrodden slums.
Her version of Hell is wonderfully portrayed too, massively bureaucratic and structured with various ministries in charge of doing things to keep evil in the real world. However, there are certain rules they have to follow, and they canít step on each othersí toes. Zhu Irzh is on the Vice Squad not to prevent and control Vice but to make sure that everythingís being done properly. We donít see Heaven in the novel, but we do see how it interacts with the real world and with Hell - Hellís minions do have to watch their step so Heavenís bureaucracy doesnít get involved. Williamsí description of everything makes you feel like youíre there, sweltering in the heat or down in Hell when Chen has to go there to finish his mission.
Chen is married to a demon who has escaped from Hell because of an attempted forced marriage (all of this happened in a previous unpublished adventure). Heís world-weary but definitely good at what he does. Heís on the outs with his goddess right now, which will make visiting Hell a bit tougher because he wonít have her protection. Zhu Irzh is a wonderful creation, a demon with a few ethics; heís not a ďgoodĒ demon, but he wants to make sure everything runs smoothly and correctly. Chen and he form an interesting relationship of mutual respect and distrust, and their interplay is a lot of fun to read. In fact, sometimes Zhu is more interesting than Chen, especially in little details such as how he keeps on getting his favorite coat messed up and how annoyed that makes him. The ending of the book promises that, in subsequent novels, we will be seeing more of Zhu, which pleases me. I wasnít quite as impressed with Chenís wife, but she starts to hold her own as her storyline moves forward. Williams also has a handle on her minor characters, making them distinctive even if they arenít a major part of the plot.
This series is really hard to classify; itís almost a mix of fantasy and science fiction. There are some gee-whiz technical things like flatscreens that you can pour out of a phial and which become like networked computers. But there are also magic and demons as well. The ďa Detective Inspector Chen novelĒ notation also makes it sound like a mystery, but itís really not, other than the fact that Chen is a cop. What I can say is that itís an interesting world Williams has created, with an almost timeless quality to it, even though itís obviously ďin the future.Ē
I really did enjoy and recommend it highly to any fantasy or science fiction fan looking for something a little different. The book can be slow going at times, but thatís usually because youíre spending more time immersed in the setting and Williamsí wonderful prose. Iím usually a quick read and was a bit annoyed at first that this book was taking me so long. Then I realized that I was enjoying my stay in it, and that was alright. Itís an interesting setting and a fantastic book.