RogerBW's Blog

Precious Dragon, Liz Williams 20 December 2021

2007 urban fantasy. Detective Inspector Chen and his demonic partner Zhu Irzh just want to get on with solving crime. But they're set to escort a celestial diplomat from Heaven on a visit to Hell…

Well, yeah, don't start here, because while you can pick up that in this world Chinese Heaven and Hell are definitely real places, there are details (including reasons for people here to act as they do) that you'll miss if you haven't read the second book, and that was in turn more fun because I'd read the first (even if there is a bit of early instalment weirdness to deal with).

Singapore Three, even at this time of night, was still almost gridlocked. The city had been bad even before the earthquakes, and now it was close to impossible. Chen had thought he'd been given a tough job as liaison officer with Hell, but it was nothing compared to being a member of the traffic department.

There are also multiple plots going on here: as well as the police business, a chorus boy and part-time prostitute with the Opera finds himself in Hell without the formality of having died first, and an elderly woman finally gets her daughter married, and looks after her grandson. (Her daughter died some decades ago, but they still talk regularly.) An ancient dragon travels to meet the rest of them. Oh, and it seems that Hell is gearing up for war…

There are perhaps slightly too many stories going on here. Yes, of course they all come together eventually, but the constant switching of viewpoints is jarring, particularly with many short chapters.

On the other hand, Chen and Zhu spend most of their time working together, which is when this partnership is not just strongest but most fun to read about. (Chen also gets to be a fish very much out of water when he accompanies Zhu to the latter's mother's birthday party; well, he can't get out of it, being already in Hell and all…)

When he died, as a devoted servant of the Goddess Kuan Yin, Most Merciful and Compassionate, he might reasonably expect to enter Heaven himself. Okay, he'd married a demon. His right-hand man was from Hell. On a previous, unfortunate occasion, he'd used the goddess' sacred image as a battering ram. Good thing she was Merciful and Compassionate, really.

Most importantly, though, Williams isn't writing a series of novels in a static setting: she's clearly willing to knock down the mighty and make profound changes to the structures of power. It's easy for a fantasy to bog down in the small stories and leave the large ones untold; this has those large stories affected by the small ones, in ways that make sense.

I space these books out because I enjoy them so. I shall continue to do this.

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

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