SNAKE AGENT by Liz Williams
Night Shade Books, 2008, 375 pages, 978-1-59780-107-2, Mass Market Paperback, $7.99
Genre: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Detective Fiction
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up this book over the last three months. It seems like every time I wandered into the fantasy/science fiction section of Borders, I would find myself staring quizzically at the back cover and thinking: Why does this sound familiar? The answer, of course, was that I’d read the blurb at least three times before.
Well, I finally broke down and purchased it. Overall, on a scale of Hate It to Love It, I’d rate this book Pretty Darn Enjoyable. When I say the words escapist fantasy, this is the kind of story I’m talking about. It has a good enough plot to keep me interested, characters who are fun to read about, and it’s satisfactorily suspenseful, but it’s not incredibly heavy with layers upon layers theme. Just the kind of thing you want to pass the time during a three day holiday.
In Snake Agent, Detective Inspector Chen is put on a case involving the daughter of a well-to-do family. Turns out her ghost was snatched and, in the process of discovering what happened to her, Chen finds himself involved in a larger plot concerning Hell and Heaven.
Yes, Hell and Heaven. Gods, goddesses, demons, ghosts, otherworldly planes, and magic in general are stuffed into this novel. It’s all handled in a very fun way. The author doesn’t make any of it too serious; in fact, the quirks and intricacies of the various supernatural locales are some of the most interesting parts of the book. Hell is entertaining with all the political backstabbing going on down there, Earth is pretty much what you would expect, and Heaven is…well, it’s Heaven, of course. But keep in mind that the author makes a point of connecting these otherworldly aspects to China and not to the Western world. The mythology is a little different (and thank goodness for the Asian art course I took, because it made reading about the various deities and magical-doings even more fun).
Actually, we don’t get to see a lot of the Celestial Shores or Heaven itself in book one, considering the storyline (which I’ll refrain from revealing). But there are goddesses showing up on Earth, including Chen’s patron deity, Kuan Yin, and then there’s the plane jumping between Earth, Hell, and the Night Harbor. Quite a bit of activity there, as a matter of fact, so there’s not a chance to get bored.
Chen is an interesting character. He works for the Singapore Three police force and he’s apparently on the outs with his patron deity. Which means he doesn’t really have a place anywhere, considering she won’t speak to him and the other members of the police force are generally very wary around him (considering he’s the one heading up the supernatural cases, and he has a license to visit Hell on assignment).
Of course my favorite character during this novel was Zhu Irzh, a demon from Hell’s Vice division (which I found a pretty amusing idea, I admit). I can’t quite put my finger on what makes him my favorite–maybe it’s because he’s a demon with a conscience, or maybe it’s the way he interacts with Chen. Or it could be his irreverent and sometimes impulsive attitude. Either way, I found myself looking forward to the chapters that included Zhu Irzh (I even rushed to the read the second novel in this series because he would be featured in it).
So, the short version is: I like this novel. It was easy to read and pretty entertaining. I’d recommend it to anyone who might enjoy an urban fantasy detective story. It wasn’t perfect, of course. I have a few nitpicks, mostly concerning the repetitive use of some names and phrases here and there when a pronoun could have been easily substituted. But they weren’t so glaringly obvious that I couldn’t enjoy the book, so you’ll excuse me if I sort of pass over them and focus on what I liked.
Finally–check out that cover art. Isn’t it great?