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review 2014-05-09 21:01
Review: Snake Agent (Detective Inspector Chen, #1)
Snake Agent - Liz Williams

Not many books have moments that both intrigue and disgust me. At the same time. And not many books present these moments back to back with little respite in between for squeamish readers to settle their stomachs. That is to say this book is not for the faint of heart, especially not for those who can't stand the sight of blood and gore or sickness and decomposition.

On the back cover:

John Constantine meets Chow Yun-Fat in this near-future occult thriller!

I don't usually read the cover's summaries anymore because of gimmicky taglines, but this one is a hilarious, yet strangely accurate description of how I pictured Chen.


Detective Chen Wei works for the Singapore Three police department and oversees supernaturally related investigations; he's also Earth's liaison between Heaven and Hell. Anything weird or out of the ordinary that happens gets sent to Chen's desk, but judging by the amount of weirdness and extraordinary things happening in Singapore Three, it's odd not to see the whole police department trained as supernatural specialists. We don't see or learn much about Heaven in this book, but we do get to go to Hell, several times over (all puns intended?).


"I'm going to need a leave of absence." [Chen said]
"To do what?"
"Go to Hell, sir."
There was a short pregnant pause, then Sung said, "You nicked my line, Detective."


The case is a puzzling one that's much more than it seems. A young girl from a prominent family has died of mysterious circumstances and now her ghost is missing. Her mother comes to Chen for help to send her ghost on its way to Heaven, where she belongs. Chen agrees to look into the matter, but finds almost nothing to go on. Then he finds out there's trouble at the family home and that the family may have questionable ties to Hell. That's when things get weird but in a fun, disturbing way.


The story is set sometime in the near future, and the location of Singapore Three is not mentioned. What is mentioned is the city has a large urban expanse, lively cityscape, coastal region, and a very soggy rain season.


The cast of supporting characters are well developed without seeming too forced or trope-like, and they add a lot of color to the plots and dialogues. Inari, Chen's wife, is a runaway who's literally trying to settle into her new life with Chen. The Badger, her faithful servant, is a grumpy play on the helpful animal sidekick trope. Seneschal Zhu Irzh, an investigator from Hell and Vice (same difference, really), who's on assignment to investigate Hell's side of Chen's missing girl case. Sargent Ma of Singapore Three PD is a squeamish cop who views Chen with suspicion and wants nothing to do with the supernatural, least of all Hell. Lao, the PD's exorcist and Chen's good friend, who's naturally suspicious of all things Hell. And a few more characters too spoilery to mention.


The idea of Heaven and Hell as bureaucracies is amusing to me, and the political struggles of both sides is great. I find the way Liz Williams writes about the denizens of Hell who are stuck in these mind-numbing, paper-pushing thankless bureaucratic jobs just hilarious. Given that Williams' background as an ambassador's underling, it's no wonder she's captured these nuances so perfectly, right down to the disdain for the office and the job at hand. Of course Hell is a public office drowned in tedious paperwork, but Heaven too? I look forward to Williams' version of that.


It seems Williams' take on Chinese mythology and death magic is a point of discussion (derision?) among readers. Personally, I find her portrayals interesting and familiar like an homage to classic East Asian tropes. Some might say they're appropriative though, which I can understand where they're coming from. A few of her descriptions of skin, eyes, and hair seem too forced as though she tries too hard to set a specifically Chinese or East Asian tone in the writing. Her descriptions and metaphors of buildings, streets, offices, and tea, however, paint a nice picture of Chen's adventures.


Williams has done her research for this book and seems familiar with beliefs and practices of death ceremonials; many of the elaborate beliefs are neatly tied into character development and the practices, into plotting. Having these traditions show up at various points in the book help to explain the long-winded processes of death, the afterlife, reincarnation, and the interconnections of Heaven and Hell to otherwise clueless readers. I think Williams did an admirable job incorporating so many intricate pieces of Chinese folktale and mythology together to tell a colorful story.


A point where I think Williams' writing shines the most

It was just past six, and the sun was already sinking down over the port in a smear of fire. Chen boarded the first available tram, and stood in the midst of a packed crowd of commuters, noting the exhaustion that seemed to hang like a miasma over each figure. No wonder people seemed to have so little time these days to devote themselves to considerations of the afterlife, Chen reflected,  and no wonder Hell was getting out of hand. Even twenty years ago it was still common to see the small shrines outside each door, and for old people to speak of the gods as real, living presences. Now, paradoxically, the other worlds were closer than they had been since ancient times; with new technology to speed up all manner of communication, yet people seemed to take less and less interest in spiritual matters. Perhaps it was simply too much to bear, Chen thought; perhaps it was too much to ask of people to concern themselves with something other than the daily grind. Whatever the reason, it did not make his work any easier.


*     *     *     *     *


I'd like to thank Carol for upgrading to the hardcover version and passing on her paperback copy to me.


I now own two copies of this book and am willing to part with the massmarket paperback edition, which is still in pristine condition. If anyone is interested, let me know and I will pass it on, n keeping with traditions. :)

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review 2014-01-09 06:08
The Shadow Pavilion
The Shadow Pavilion - Liz Williams

The fourth book in the Inspector Chen series, Shadow Pavilion feels like Williams has found her groove. Or perhaps, I have discovered the rhythm to reading her. At any rate, I devoured it in a day. Granted, it was a day that was -25 degrees with the wind chill, but Inspector Chen had the greatest promise of diversion among books on hand, and it was quickly apparent I chose well. Now that Inspector Chen and the ensemble cast has overthrown both Heaven and Hell, they are attempting to focus on issues closer to home. However, mysteries will lead them to new dimensions, and give familiar background characters a chance to shine.



Pauleng Go is a screenwriter who has been burdened with a successful but demanding actress after summoning her from elsewhere–he’s just now getting an idea of just how different she is.  Celestial Emperor of Heaven, Mhara, newly arrived to the position, is determined to bring change to Heaven’s staid citizens which sets many of them on edge, including his Imperial Mother. Inspector Chen and the Singapore police department have been perplexed by a string of Hell-run sweatshops springing up in Singapore 3.  His wife Inari’s familiar, Badger, has volunteered to retrieve a bug from a dodgy warehouse, accompanied by Chen’s demonic partner, Zhu-Irzh. Events are set in motion when Go’s banishing fails, an assassin is hired to kill the Emperor, and Badger and Zhu-Irzh go missing. Go’s complex situation turns out to involve the mission demon and familiar, giving the reader two main storylines to follow.




Chinese mythology is complex, but generally views the spectrum of heaven-earth-hell differently from Christian mythology, so playing in Williams’ world requires a little bit of adjustment for the underexposed reader. The Shadow Pavilion takes the reader to two new settings in the Chen universe, an unexpected and fun development. One of the challenges of any series is to maintain interest without merely recycling earlier, presumably successful stories.  The addition of two unexpected complex settings adds interest and variety to the world-building. One theme Williams has been exploring is that despite prejudice, different cosmological locations share a surprising amount of similarity. For instance, in some ways, bureaucracy rules all three. This book, the focus is less on the realm politics and more on the personal relationships. It makes it more intelligible, and helps focus the plot in a way that promotes emotional engagement.


Narrative structure is both a strength and a weakness.  As is typical in the Inspector Chen series, chapters alternate between various characters, this time between Go, Mhara, Chen, Badger, Inari, Zhu-Irzh and the assassin. The multiple perspective is the one aspect of her writing that I dislike; I find that it breaks up her complicated world-building and story-telling into too many pieces. Since Williams does not tell easy, uncomplicated stories, I suspect it is a barrier for many readers. However, since Go is the only new character from the book three, in this case the variety of viewpoints fleshes things out more than confuses. This could also be a result of a more developed writing style. At any rate, it was enjoyable to finally learn more about Inhari and the Badger-spirit, two of the more intriguing side characters. As a quick aside, one of the characters is a composite male-female personality. Fascinating idea and I think respectfully done.


Characterization is as enjoyable as always, helped along by the varied narratives. Williams does achieve a different feel for each one, from the mainstream, egocentric Go’s confused desperation, to Badger’s faithful determination, to Inari’s delicate political balancing. Badger’s irascible personality allows that sharp sense of humor a chance to come out and play in his sections, particularly when he has to be “teakettling.”  Bits of humor trickle in, sometimes unconsciously to the characters. There’s characterizing Go’s coping: “Like most writers, he’d always been able to hold his booze” to the demon Zhu Irzh’s career choice:


When I was a little boy, I was obsessed with warriors. Like most kids, I suppose. I did a lot of reading about them and sometimes my tutors indulged me… When I grew up a bit, I discovered that becoming a warrior meant discipline, austerity, not drinking, that kind of thing. So I joined the vice squad instead.”


Perhaps it has been too long since I picked up a Williams book, but I found the writing style extremely enjoyable, worthy of savoring.  It felt like Williams was taking time to look around, describe the world, offer more guidance on the tour, develop emotional reaction. Since areas were new to characters as well, the reader oriented to the new location along with the character. It worked. One of my favorite moments in the first book was a line that had to do with “walking a lobster, much like a French surrealist.” Most of that absurdity is gone here, replaced with growing maturity in world development and lushness in characterization.  There were a number of writing moments where I thought, “ahh, nice,” but nothing that stood out, perhaps because the entire book felt like it was consistently high quality. Reading back, I found a few non-spoilery phrases that stuck:


“Again, a blink, for this was not Hell. But the feeling remained with her, a small, sharp memory like a pin in the fold of a dress that cannot be found and which pricks you when you least suspect it.”


“It was, he discovered, a beautiful evening. For once, the air above the sprawl of Singapore Three was clear, fading down into an intensity of sunset green. There was a brief flash of gold from the horizon, along the line of the sea, and Mhara felt the benediction of the sun as it slipped out of sight. He had a sudden, dizzying vision of the sun as a distant star, the little zip and flicker of the world as it orbited. Then it was gone and the lights of the city lay before him, peaceful in this liminal time of twilight in spite of the faint roar of traffic.


The ending wraps the issues in this book up rather well, but leaves the way open for a very obvious plot continuance in book five. Unfortunately, because so much of the characterization and plotting rests on events in prior books, I doubt it would do as well as a stand-alone work. Williams does throw in some tiny nutshells, but they are definitely tiny and may not work for those that like concrete definitions. Overall, one of those series installments that has me guaranteed to pick up the next book. Crossing my fingers that it maintains the same quality.


As an aside, I bought the hardcover, which is absolutely beautiful. Interesting, unusual artwork on the book jacket cover, heavy paper, solid weight. I’ve already looked for The Iron Khan in hardcover, but it appears it was only published in paperback. Alas.

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review 2014-01-07 04:15
Giving up
The Demon and the City - Liz Williams

Okay, I'm finally facing reality: I'm not going to finish this. I tried to push my way through it, but the climax--the generally god-ridden apocalyptic climax, mind you--was so boring that I defected to other books.  It's not a bad book, mind you; I just failed to connect with any of the characters. At this point, I'm still not motivated to pick it up and I'm beginning to forget plot details, so I think I'll reshelve this "to read" someday.  

It's kindle-lendable, so PM me if you want to borrow it.  Maybe if someone else enjoys it I'll regain my drive to read it.

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text 2013-10-10 17:12
A Unique Spin On Urban Fantasy
Snake Agent - Liz Williams

Thoughts over on my blog.http://fedpeaches.blogspot.com/2013/10/hell-isnt-other-people-its-forms-lines.html

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review 2013-07-21 20:58
Snake Agent: A Detective Inspector Chen Novel (Detective Inspector Chen Novels)
Snake Agent - Liz Williams I'm still not sure about this one. One of the comments on the cover describe it as "John Constantine meets Chow Yun-Fat" and that's not completely unfair. It's a futuristic world, a world with liquid computers (a wonderful sequence) and franchised cities but also a world where the paranormal is closer than might be comfortable, where Heaven and Hell are a few blood-drops away and the Gods animate their statues in temples. In the middle of this is Detective Inspector Chen, the Singapore Three police department snake agent, the detective in charge of supernatural and mystical investigations. A man hiding a demon wife, and trying to keep on the good side of his patron goddess Quan Yin. He ends up helping a vice officer from Hell to investigate some illegal soul trafficking. Interesting but it somehow lacked something. I'm not completely sure what it was that it lacked. It was almost that the author had a great idea for characters but couldn't work out a great way to get them together. There were things left hanging that may be resolved in the next but might be left for a while and all in all although a good read not a great one although it did show a lot of potential to be a great read.
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