Friday, May 21, 2010

Precious Dragon by Liz Williams

Detective Inspector Chen is a member of the Singapore Three Police department, and he's been paired with Zhu Irzh, a demon who is quite literally from Hell. But this is not Western Hell, but the Hell-Realm of the Eastern Bureacracy. Chen and Irzh have been paired together twice before, and have worked well together.

The city is still recovering from the attack of Senditreya in the last book, and Chen and Zhu Irzh are being singled out for praise by their superiors. However, due to the success of their cases together, their superiors have assigned them a new task, to make a diplomatic visit to Hell with a Heavenly representative, Miss Qi. For some reason, the Ministry of War has invited them to Hell to make a visit, and Miss Qi, a beautiful and entirely inoffensive-looking spirit, has been assigned to go with them. Zhu Irzh doesn't mind making the trip, but Chen thinks that taking a heavenly creature like Miss Qi to Hell is going to be a trial.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city, a woman named Mrs. Pa arranges for the marriage of her daughter Mai to the son of a family of her dead Husband's former business associates. Luckily, her suit is accepted, and Ms. Pa scurries around town buying items and making preparations. At the time of the marriage, though, it is revealed that her daughter is dead and in Hell, as is her husband. Mrs. Pa can only speak to her by phone, and see her for a short while when the marriage boat comes through from Hell. When it does, she and the other guests burn items, including "Hell Money" to assure their children a happy life and material possessions, and then the boat is gone, back to Hell.

But shortly thereafter, Mrs Pa receives a call from her daughter telling Mrs. Pa that she has a grandson, and Mai tells her how to get him from the temple of Sulai Ba. Mrs Pa thinks her retrieving her grandson is a dream, but he turns out to be entirely real, and Mrs. Pa names him "Precious Dragon" and brings him back home with her. He is a strange child, an old soul, but sweet and good.

Also in the city, the chorus Boy Pin sings for his supper at the City Opera, but he's looking out for a Sugar Daddy or Sugar Momma to take him on and support him, since he is getting too old for the Opera and doesn't want to return to his old profession of Rent Boy. After the Opera's latest performance, he has hopes that Jhai Tserai might be willing to take him on, but she has her own lover, a demon from Hell named Zhu Irzh. After the party, a colleague of his, someone he considers a pain in the ass, Maiden Ming, goes Missing, and Chen and Zhu Irzh look into it, but are unable to find her.

Then, Pin finds himself going out on a "date" and ending up at a Hell Club, where he undergoes a strange ritual and finds his soul ending up in Hell, imprisoned in the body of a female demon when the convocation of demons are attacked by Kuei. The demon woman flees and manages to escape, but with Pai stuck inside her. She seeks help from an exorcist, but must eventually approach the Minstry of Diseases for help. There, a mere technician manages the job, and Pin ends up finding the girl sympathetic to his plight. For she is Mai Pa, daughter of Mrs. Pa, and like Pin, is in Hell unjustly.

Back on earth, all is not well, Precious Dragon and Mrs. Pa are attacked by a strange creature from Hell. Precious Dragon manages to send it back, but not without aid. Chen and Zhu Irzh, drawn to the scene, help Mrs. Pa with Precious Dragon, and Chen offers them sanctuary with his wife, Inara, as he and Zhu Irzh are shortly to leave for Hell. Mrs. Pa accepts, and it is done. But this attack is only the first of many, and they will all be forced to take shelter with Mhara, who can only help them so much. Perhaps the answers might lie in Sulai-Ba, where Precious Dragon came to earth?

In Hell, Chen, Ms Qui and Zhu Irzh are wined, dined and tour the Ministry of their hosts, the Ministry of War. War appears to be building up its forces, but for what cause? And why has Zhu Irzh's mother formed an alliance with the Minster of War? Even as they attend Mrs. Zhu's birthday party, they are instrumental in saving her from attack, for which Zhu claims a prize- the heart of his grandfather, who rebelled against the Emperor of Hell and was Banished to the lowest level of Hell, and his heart ripped from him so that he could never come back.

But when Qi is kidnapped by the Ministry of Lust, and Heaven invades Hell to Annex it and make Earth the new Hell, can Chen and Zhu Irzh prevent the Celestial Emperor from succeeding in his plans without allowing either side to truly triumph? For that matter, does Chen really want to go against Heaven in this matter? Does he have a choice? Can Earth survive once set apart from Heaven? And will there be a happy ending for Pin and Mai?

I love reading series which are not based on Western Mythology, and this one has all that in spades. Not only are the Eastern Hell of China mentioned, but Jhai Tserai, Zhu's paramour, is not from the Chinese Hell, but from a Hell of India, and is a tigress-demon. There are hints that the Hell Zhu Irzh comes from encompasses only China, and that other countries- Korea, Japan, Thailand, Tibet- all have their own hells and heavens.

And in this case, heaven doesn't exactly mean "good". Yes, Heaven is the place where the beneficent spirits live, but this heaven isn't one I'd consider heavenly- for it wishes to withdraw from mankind forever. And its leader is insane, ordering Hell to be invaded. But there are some "perks" that come with the job- The Emperor's word becomes law and all inhabitants of Heaven agree with his views, but even the inhabitants of Heaven think it can be cloying and overly sweet.

I enjoyed both the story in this volume, and the world. It's not just Chen and Zhu Irzh that make an appearance in each volume any more, but Jhai Tserai, Mhara, Robin, Inara and Ma, Chen's subordinate. Each book continues to get better and better, it's a sure bet that events in this story will have plenty of repercussions into the far future for the series. An exciting, intriguing and engaging series, well worth the time and money. Highly recommended.

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