Starring (in order of appearance): a precocious orphan chorus boy with the Island Opera; a demon emissary from Hell; Inspector Chen, detective with Singapore Three’s police force; an elderly woman; her daughter, currently a resident of Hell; an ancient water dragon; and a mysterious grandson and his equally mysterious pearl. They are supported by an emissary from Heaven with an apologetic talent for violence, a badger who is also a teakettle, and a pharmaceutical mogul who has tigress tendencies. How can you not be intrigued by such a cast of characters?
While the plot for Precious Dragon is a little tighter than the prior book, this isn’t as much mystery as epic quest. The trouble is that instead of bringing her fellowship together, Williams tries to carry the storylines separately–that of the opera youth who inadvertently becomes a ghost, the daughter who lives in Hell and works at the Ministry of Epidemics, the detectives’ investigation and diplomatic journey to Hell, the grandmother and her strange grandson trying to survive strange attacks, and that of the dragon and her journey through the world’s waters–and it doesn’t quite maintain enough integrity to succeed. Eventually the majority of stories dovetail, but it occurs so late, it is without that accompanying “ah-ha” moment.
While I love the dragon viewpoint and the opportunity it gives to let Williams’ writing shine, it was not truly necessary for the plot, and I suspect the daughter’s focus could have been eliminated as well. I do acknowledge that the challenge could just be me and my everlasting irritation with the multiple-viewpoint narrative. It almost succeeds. Characters are more coherent than Weeks’ Shadow series, for instance, so if you didn’t mind that style, by all means, give Williams a whirl–she’s infinitely more inventive. In fact, this might be the trouble with the work–because she is very good at the “show, don’t tell,” and because her setting is an alternate-reality Singapore/China, it does require more reader effort than the average UF.
I find the world-building nicely balanced with action and characterization. The basis in Chinese culture and myth is fascinating, unique in the fantasy world. (If you’ve read any Chinese myths, you might have already guessed at the identity of the boy with the pearl). The characters are interesting and well done–the grandmother especially was a delight with her common sense viewpoint and willingness to accept unusual definitions of family. I enjoy Williams’ writing style, her metaphors and colorful imagery. I love her affection for Chinese culture, the humor sprinkled throughout and her clear disdain for bureaucracy (notable in the sections with Inspector Chen dealing with his superior who recently attended a management course and [misfiled] paperwork required for entry into Heaven). There’s a pleasing thematic balance between everyday issues, and larger philosophical issues of what hell/evil/chaos and heaven/good/order really mean.
I want to wholeheartedly recommend Williams’ Detective Chen series to every fantasy lover, but alas, the convoluted narrative prevents me. I suspect this book will appeal mostly for those who like highly imaginative fantasy, perhaps along the lines of Catherynne M. Valente‘s work. Starting the series at the beginning will help with the Singapore setting and the Heaven-Hell conflict, although there is a short introduction to main characters through the eyes of the chorus boy.
Three and a half tentative stars…Or… On reflection, Williams deserves more for being so inventive and thoughtful. Four determined stars.
“Night passed and the new day shone under the surface of the water, light curving and fragmented. She was coming closer to the cold waters, the ice seas of the north, and she breathed in the fresh water, snowmelt running cold along her dappled sides.”
“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. He felt almost smug as Ma took the police car the wrong way along a one-way street, up a flight of steps, and shot along the harbor road against the flow of in-bound traffic.”
“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.”