Thursday, 17 January 2008
‘Snake Agent’ – Liz Williams (Nightshade Books)
When I first started with the blog, urban fantasy was a genre that I’d never really gone into in any depth (epic fantasy has always been where it’s at for me). I think the furthest I ever got into the genre was Mike Carey’s ‘Felix Castor’ books. Over the last year, my initial forays into urban fantasy have turned up real gems such as Charlie Huston, Mike Carey and Charles de Lint. It’s also brought Laurell K. Hamilton to my attention, the less said about that the better as far as I’m concerned… ;o) Next up is one Liz Williams with ‘Snake Agent’, the first novel in her ‘Inspector Chen’ series. While Williams is no Mike Carey or Charlie Huston, she still gets to go in the ‘good urban fantasy pile’ on the strength of this book. I think I’ve found another series to keep an eye open for…
Detective Inspector Chen, of the Singapore Three (a franchise city) police force, specialises in supernatural cases so when the ghost of a murdered girl fails to make it to Heaven as expected, Chen heads the investigation. At the same time Seneschal Zhu Irzh (a member of Hell’s own police force) is tasked with finding a dead prostitute, who has escaped one of Hell’s brothels, and it turns out that they are both after the same ghost. Before they can even decide who gets rightful custody of the ghost, Chen and Zhu must work together to find her. It’s not as simple as that though, this one ghost is just the start of a chain that will lead to a plot that could upset the carefully maintained balance between Heaven and Hell…
‘Snake Agent’ isn’t just a detective novel although it performs this function really well, giving me enough questions to keep me reading while spreading the answers across the book like little rewards for progress made (each answer resulting in more questions). I really appreciated the balance here as I personally hate having to wait until the end of a story to get the full picture of what is going on. I also liked that although this is the first book in a series, it felt like the beginning was actually page one hundred and I had some catching up to do. Gaps are filled in later on but the author assumes knowledge of the characters to begin with and this ups the tempo of the book straight away. Williams also paints a pretty good picture of the world that these people inhabit but sometimes I wanted a little more. I also got the feeling that Williams took advantage of the ever changing nature of Hell and dropped in a few ‘get out of jail free’ cards for certain characters in tricky situations.
‘Snake Agent’ is also a fascinating look at a near future world where Heaven and Hell are more tangible than they have ever been, if you have the right stamps on your passport then you can visit either of them whenever you want. The knock on effects of this are explored in a way that I haven’t seen before. You don’t get demons pouring out of a rift and killing everyone, these guys are trading their technology with humans but it all amounts to the same thing in the end… What’s also interesting is the exploration of human spirituality when a person is forced to live with their deities in physical form. It’s quite interesting to see Chen’s personal battle to do good while being forced to work with agents of evil.
‘Snake Agent’ is an assured beginning to what promises to be a fine series if it carries on in this vein. I’ll be looking out for more of these and I reckon anyone who wants urban fantasy that’s meatier than normal could do worse than pick this up.
Eight and a Half out of Ten