Snake Agent will always occupy a unique position in my library and in my reading history. First, as an aside, is the sheer beauty of the cover art. Four out of the five published books in the series have the same artist, and all four are stunning. Second, and more importantly, is the the familiar world-weary police officer trope in urban fantasy and move it into a Chinese cultural and mythological setting. I haven’t read many books in an Asian setting, much less urban fantasy, and Williams seems to have played respectfully with aspects of the traditions while turning them sideways in a most enjoyable fashion.
Set in modern Singapore–franchise #3, to be exact–Heaven and Hell are real stops on the reincarnation wheel. It’s actually nice to have the framework plot of the world-weary detective going his own path, because it helps ground the reader in the unfamiliar world. Williams has taken the idea of the Chinese Heaven and the multi-leveled Hell, and made it concrete, and Detective Inspector Chen is one of the few police officers authorized to make the crossing into the Hells. Other characters include the somewhat imaginatively challenged but staid sidekick, Sargent Ma, and the potentially helpful representative from one of the Hells, Seneschal Zhu Irzh of Vice (it’s complicated). True to form, there is also the unobtrusively supportive superior who will throw him to the wolves if Chen fails:
“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”
Williams is a talented writer, and the story is filled with rich detail, from the humidity and the desperately functioning air-conditioners in the police station, to the ominousness of the demonic world. The detail provides a sense of atmosphere to a case that literally involves the otherworldly, but yet avoids purple prose:
“The chanting seemed to have been going on for years. Chen could not remember a time when it had not been ringing in his ears: a surging, insistent note, threaded through with discord. He blinked, trying to clear his head. A red and gold ceiling swam above him; lights sparkled by. By degrees, he realized that he was still lying flat on his back on H’suen Tang’s carpet.”
Williams did use one of my unfavorite ploys, beginning the book with a scene fraught with danger, foreshadowing problems to come, but I forgive her, as the rest was so much fun. And so interesting. My only real criticism is the structure of the book; we initially meet Chen in third person view, then his wife (“meanwhile, back at the ranch…”), then the demon Zhu Irzh, and then she adds in a further perspective or two as the story progresses, which I felt might have jumbled the narrative unnecessarily. It would have been more fun seeing Zhu gain humanity through others’ perspective, rather than reading him thinking about it.
But really, what can you say about a book that contains lines such as “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” or followed by a discussion of how a Ministry of Hell uses pharmaceutical companies? Or realize that one of the major Ministries of Hell is the Ministry of Wealth? Love it.
Very dense, very flavorful, very satisfying. Third read complete.