Snake Agent by Liz Williams

(2008-02-25)

Published by Night Shade Books

January 2008

ISBN: 978-1-59780-107-2

352 Pages

Liz Williams’s Live Journal: http://mevennen.livejournal.com/

 

Liz Williams writes in many sub-genres of speculative fiction, gothic fantasy, multi-cultural science fiction, and supernatural mysteries.  The last is the concern of this review, specifically her first Detective Inspector Chen Novel – Snake Agent. The novel starts out like a cop buddy movie, the high concept “movie pitch” goes like this: Lethal Weapon with ghosts and demons; officers from Hell and cops from Heaven, minus the “I’m too old for this Shit” and the Mel Gibson Three Stooges routine.

 

The novel takes place in a none-too-distant future where cities are replicated like Big Macs and the paths to Heaven and Hell are accessible to living mortals. Our point character is the eponymous Detective Inspector Chen, who is investigating a missing ghost.  Rather a spirit who was supposed to go to Heaven but had been brought illegally to Hell.  Regardless, Chen’s services as Singapore 3’s resident supernatural expert are requested. We soon learn that while Chen has a patron saint, he is not exactly a “good boy.”  For one, his wife Inari is a demon; a demon he rescued from Hell. For another, he regularly goes against the more sacred dictates of his patron saint.

 

As the mystery deepens, Chen discovers the spirit he is tracking is being tracked by a demonic officer of Hell.  Specifically, the demon Seneschal Zhu Irzh, who is Chen’s Hellish counterpart. Zhu is himself a complex character who shines both in his “solo” scenes as well as those scenes when paired with Chen.  This is where the “buddy” element factors into the story, as they form an uneasy alliance and soon discover a complex weaving of threads more intricate than simply trafficking of human souls.  The souls, often innocent souls, are being put to use by one of the Ministries of Hell.

 

Williams plays the characters of Chen and Zhu off of each other very well and gives an unsettling feel when the agent of Heaven and agent of Hell work together, at least initially.  Their relationship evolves as does the novel. Though Chen’s wife Inari doesn’t share physical time with Chen in much of the novel, their love for each other does come through in the way Williams portrays their thoughts about each other.  All told, Williams does a fine job with the characters of the story.

 

Williams’s hierarchical vision of Hell is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the story.  In some respects, Hell doesn’t seem entirely different from our own world.   Bureaucracy and politics flavor hell enough that it could easily be an analogue to our world.  In the living world of Singapore 3, the lines of bureaucracy and politics do exist, but as is fitting, these constraints seem more difficult to deal with in Hell.  At least, this is what Zhu would tell you.

 

The Chinese mythology that Williams uses as a backdrop for the cosmology of this world is a refreshing change of pace from what readers are accustomed to seeing.  It is well fleshed out and the details are not an overburden on either the plot or the character development.  The book is structure d very nicely with relatively short chapters that help to make the already briskly paced novel move even more satisfyingly.

 

All told, Snake Agent is a solid entry in the popular and growing subgenre of the mystery/fantasy hybrid. The book is also one of Night Shade Books’s first mass market titles and as I look at the book sitting next to the current Jim Butcher novel I’m reading, it compares just as well physically as it does in story.  It is nice to see an independent publisher like Night Shade, known primarily for their quality hardcover reprints and short story collections, jump into the mass market paperback end of things.  With Snake Agent as one of the lead titles, they have definitely picked a good book to help kick off their mass market paperback line.

 

© 2008 Rob H. Bedford

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