Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Snake Agent by Liz Williams

Detective Inspector Chen of the Singapore Three police is approached by the wife of a wealthy industrialist with a problem. It seems her daughter, who had always been a virtuous girl, but was plagued by bouts of anorexia, had died and been buried. However, she has not arrived in heaven as she was supposed to. Now, she has recieved a photograph of the ghost of her daughter, and it's clear her daughter is not reposing on the celestial shores like she had been promised.

She wants Sergeant Chen to find her daughter and make sure she gets to heaven. But her husband cannot be allowed to find out that Mrs. Tang has gone to see the police, since he would find this an affront to his dignity.

Meanwhile, in Hell, Sensschal Zhu Irzh, is called in to search for a girl missing from one of Hell's own brothels. As one of the department of Vice (promoting it, not combating it), he is uniquely qualified for the job. The strange thing is, he is asked to find this girl not by a member of his own department, but a higher-up in the Department of Banking, who Zhu Irzh has been working for on the sly.

Unknown to them both, the girl they are seeking is one and the same, Pearl Tang. By investigating her disappearance, and the reasons she ended up in Hell instead of Heaven, they will uncover a vast conspiracy involving innocent maidens sent to Hell. The real question is: Why? Why is there a need for innocent souls in Hell, and who could be behind such a thing?

As their investigation uncovers the conspiracy, Detective Chen's demonic wife is drawn into Hell. Indeed, she was formerly involved with one of the suspects, before she ran from her family and Chen rescued and married her. When Chen realizes she is missing, he will literally move Heaven and the whole of Hell itself to get her back. But even her presence exposes Chen to censure and imprisonment from his superiors and colleagues. Can he get her back without her being hunted by one of his colleagues, a Demonhunter from another city? Or will Chen be condemned to Hell along with his wife, where a living human is, at best, considered a tasty snack?

I really enjoyed this book. The writing style is clear and accessible, and the characters are fresh and engaging. The story is written from a Chinese perspective, in which Hell is a bad place, yes, but not eternal. But then again, neither is heaven. Spirits go to their reward for only a short time (relatively), and are then reborn to live again. Even the spirits of Heaven and Hell will die and be reborn.

Additionally, Heaven and Hell are bureacracies, with all that implies. Paperwork rules, and if the paperwork is lost, or your case is not clear, you could be stuck in the Night Harbor, the place where you wait for a boat to take you to either Heaven or Hell, for an eternity.

This was refreshing to read after more traditional, western interpretations of Heaven and Hell. Not all of the inhabitants of Heaven are nice, nor are the inhabitants of Hell all bad, though the general run of things tends that way. Chen is a slow, methodical detective, while Zhu Irzh is more intuitive and makes leaps of logic, making them perfect foils for each other, and also making their styles compliment each other when they finally end up working together. Inara, Chen's wife, is a native of Hell, and we learn quite a bit, though not all, of her backstory. Seargant Ma, another coworker of Chen's, is also investigating back in the human world, and the few episodes with him contrast with the action in Hell.

The last half of the book takes place in Hell itself, where we get to see a great deal of it. In Chinese mythology, there are supposedly ten thousand Hells. We certainly don't see that many. Not even close, but there are different levels of Hell, ranging from bestial to civilized and relatively urbane. We also learn something about Hell's bureacracy, and how the different Departments (War, Disease, Vice, Banking, and so on) work with and against each other.

It adds up to a fascinating trip through another mythology, with an intriguing mystery driving the story. Gods abound, though most of them are uninterested in the concerns of mortals or those in Heaven or Hell. But this is not the case with all of them, as Hell learns to its cost. A wonderful novel, and I will definitely seek out the sequels.

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