RogerBW's Blog

Snake Agent, Liz Williams 21 March 2016

2005 futuristic fantasy. Detective Inspector Chen is a cop in the franchised city Singapore Three, in charge of magical and supernatural investigations. When a missing girl's soul turns up demonstrably in Hell, rather than Heaven where it should be, that's the first thread of a long and political investigation.

This book is a strange combination of relatively pedestrian characters and situations with an utterly fascinating universe. Yes, Chen will have to cooperate with a demon as they have buddy-cop adventures and learn to trust each other. Yes, the corruption will go all the way to the top. But there are three worlds in play here, two of which we visit in some detail: Singapore Three itself on Earth, Heaven which is only mentioned in passing, and Hell. That's the Chinese Hell, about which I admit I don't know much, but it feels richly detailed whether or not it's accurate. So when Chen has to search Celestial records, he turns away from his bioweb screen, and:

Sighing, Chen scribbled a note on a piece of red paper and took out his cigarette lighter. At least this was technology that he could understand. He folded the note into an intricate octagon, muttered a brief prayer, and set the note alight. Then he waited as it crumbled into fragrant ash and dispersed into whatever airs existed between Heaven and the world of Earth. Time for another cup of tea, Chen decided, and made his way as unobtrusively as possible to the vending machine.

The one real mis-step is a prologue that consists of a scene from near the climax of the book, wrenched out of context and placed up front to lure the reader in. Skip it; you won't lose anything.

Williams writes beautifully, particularly when describing the scenery of Hell. She also shows a good sense of humour, with moments like:

Passers-by took one look at Detective Inspector Chen hastening down the road with a lobster on a string, like one of the more eccentric French surrealists, and gave him a very wide berth.

and her characters display more self-awareness than one might expect, such as the police captain suffering from political pressure:

I'll say here and now that there's no way you're going to be taken off this case, since no one else would touch it with a barge-pole. You have my full and total support, as long as I don't actually have to go any nearer to this supernatural shit than I can help, and as long as you sort it out. But if you don't, the city will be looking for a scapegoat. That scapegoat will be you, Chen.

The plot is a relatively straightforward investigation that involves all the protagonists getting into various degrees of trouble, which seems a pity in a way given the gorgeous background against which it's played. Even so, the book is a joy to read and I recommend it highly.

Followed by The Demon and the City.

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Series: Detective Inspector Chen | Next in series: The Demon and the City

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