01/06/2009. Contributed by Vikki Green
pub: Night Shade Books. 375 page paperback. Price: $ 7.99 (US), $10.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-59780-107-2.
check out websites: www.nightshadebooks.com
'Snake Agent' by Liz Williams is set in a near future world and is a supernatural detective story. Any similarities with other stories of this ilk stop there. The backdrop is the city of Singapore Three, a franchise founded on the south coast of China. There is mention of a Singapore Nine being set up in Burma. The story centres around Detective Inspector Chen Wei, who is the city's Snake Agent. He travels to the Underworld and to Heaven in pursuit of his work.
Inspector Chen is a rounded character with an endearing streak of world-weariness and a dry sense of humour. The case begins when he is asked to find out why Pearl Tang's soul has not gone to Heaven as she should have done. His enquiries uncover a web of intrigue running from Singapore Three's wealthy industrialists, the bio-web to the underworld.
In the course of the tale, Inspector Chen manages to annoy his heavenly protector, Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy and aspect of Avalokiteshvara the Bodhisattva of Compasion. He has already annoyed her before the book begins and only aggravates the situation when he teams up with Seneschal Zhu Irzh from Hell's Vice Squad to stop a conspiracy that would render Earth barren and seriously warp Hell's power structures.
All the characters are vivid and leap off the page. Seneschal Zhu Irzh's insouciant amorality counter-pointing Chen's stolid reliability. Sergeant Ma, trying desperately to hold on to the reality he has grown up with. The grumpy exorcist Lao and the wonderful Terminator-like No Ro Shi - Beijing's Snake Agent - all come to riotous life in this book.
The world is densely realised, the details are tremendous, from the flat screen that is poured from a bottle, the deadpan Badger Spirit, the terrifying Wu'ei, to the demon's love of blood candies. The bureaucracies of Earth and Hell mirror each other in their intransigence. The geography of Singapore Three is echoed by the Underworld city. Kuan Yin's temple is in the same place in Heaven, Earth and Hell and is a gateway between them.
The mythological basis is Chinese and the story is all the stronger for being set in an unfamiliar supernatural world. The references made to other peoples' underworlds are there and indicate some form of diplomacy between them as there is between nations on Earth. Some of the throwaway lines about which ministry of hell was responsible for TV or diseases are delightful.
I admit, it took me a week or so to get over the cover. It doesn't do a lot for the book in my opinion, but I've never been a big fan if US cover design. I've had a look at the British edition on Amazon where the cover was a lot more in keeping with the nature of the story. Richly textured and beautiful. Same painting, but there was more of it on show on the version on Amazon.
Once I had got over the cover and got engrossed in the characters and action I couldn't put it down. If you're after an unusual world, with an unfamiliar mythological setting, rich detail, a wicked sense of humour and a rip-roaring read at the same time I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book.
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