At the end of Precious Dragon, the previous book in the series, the Foundations of both Heaven and Hell had been shaken to their very roots- the rulers of both Heaven and Hell are dead. The Lord of Hell has been succeeded by the former Minister of War- and his new consort will be the mother of Zhu Irzh, and the Celestial Emperor has also died, to be succeeded by his son, Mhara.
But Mhara has very different ideas about how Heaven is to be run than his father, and this is exciting both hope and anxiety in that Heavenly Realm. Heaven, more than anything, is a place of tradition, and the changes that Mhara wishes to make go against the grain of the way that Heaven now functions. This has raised no small sentiment against him, and chief among his enemies is his own mother, the Dowager Empress.
She'd be happy if her son let her run his life, but she can't get over the fact that this isn't going to happen. Mhara has his own ideas of what to do and more importantly, the way that Heaven should interact with the Earth. And Mhara wishes for nothing more than for Robin, the ghost of a human woman who should rightly be in Hell, should become his wife and rule beside him as Empress of Heaven.
But the Dowager Empress is so angry with her son and his intransigence that she hires a famous assassin, the Lady Lord Seijin, who lives in the Shadow Palace, to do away with her son. If he is no longer in the picture, then she would become the Supreme Ruler of Heaven and order life there just as she likes. But Mhara is lucky, and catches her spying on him, allowing him to foil the first attempt on his life.
Chen, back on Earth in Shanghai Three, is dealing with a problem of his own. His colleague and partner, Seneschal Zhu Irzh, has gone missing on a case, as well as his wife Inara's family spirit, the iron teapot that is also known as Badger. Both were working on a case together, and now both have vanished. But that's not the only case on his plate. Two Bollywood producers have made a significant error. To star in their films, they summoned a demon from India's Hells, a Lioness demon named Lara.
Calling her "Lara Chadijhowree", they set out to make her a star. But dealing with a demon who is also a lioness isn't the easiest thing in the world, and she proved to be as demanding as the vainest Hollywood actress, so much so that the bloom of working with her has gone swiftly off the rose. So the screenwriter, Paulent Go, being the son of an exorcist and summoner, attempts to banish Lara back to where she came from, but she's such a pain to deal with that even her demon family doesn't want her back, and have taken steps to ensure that she can never return.
But the attempt to return her to her Hell in India enrages her, and if her producers thought she was angry before, it is nothing compared to the rage she unleashes now, killing one and chasing Go until he manages to lose her. With nowhere else to go, he runs to the police, and Chen is assigned to the case. Chen believes the man, and has Jhari protect him, as she is a tigress demon from the Indian Hell herself. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Lara is her sister, and Jhari's not surprised that her relations don't want her back. Having to deal with Lara is just one of the reasons Jhari left Indian Hell and never looked back.
Badger, meanwhile, wakes up in a Hell, but realizes it is not his own. As a matter of fact, it's Indian Hell, and although he doesn't know why he's been taken, he's no match against as many tiger demons as live there. In fact, he's only there a short time when he's brought to a party and used as an entertainer, being pitted against four of the savage hounds that the Indian Hell Demons use for hunting.
Of course, badgers used to be pitted against hounds in other lands, and Badger shows them just how fierce he can be, breaking the neck of one dog and ripping out the throat of another before finding a burrow and making his escape. But before he goes, he can see that he's not the only one there- Zhu Irzh is trapped there as well. But why would a bunch of Indian Hell Demons be interested in Zhu Irzh, who has never been to either India or Indian Hell before? And what might this have to do with Jhari, to whom he has recently become engaged?
Meanwhile, Lady Lord Seijin stalks Mhara, who has announced that Heaven must help the humans on earth. Heaven is not merely about contemplating beauty while sitting on one's duff, but about service and helping others. Mhara makes this point most strongly, once again enraging his mother. At the same time, he has forgone the power that made his feelings and pronouncements unquestioningly accepted by others in Heaven, and he is happy to see that not everyone appears to disagree with him. His mother is even more furious and exhorts Seijin to try again. Seijin does, and once again, he fails, but this time there is collateral damage- Inara is killed, her head severed by Seijin's blade.
Normally, her soul would return to Hell and be reborn, but instead, it is drawn to the in-between where Seijin lives. And she discovers that Seijin is cracking up, quite literally. In addition to being part demon and part human, Seijin is Lady Lord because there are two parts of him- a female part and a male part, but they do not agree on many things, and while in the past they were in accord, now they are not, and this is destroying Seijin. Inara does her part, haunting him and taunting him. But when Seijin takes on Mhara's shape, face and place in heaven in order to fulfill his orders and kill Mhara, can Inara draw enough attention to him that he doesn't succeed? And will she manage to be reborn in order to rejoin her beloved husband on Earth?
And, In the Hell of India, Jhai Tserai has been kidnapped by Agni, demon of fire and the lord of the Hell where the Tiger-women live, known as the Hunting Lodge. Jhai is a princess of this particular Hell, and marriage to her will give Agni even more power. But can Zhu Irzh, Go and a Devi who Zhu Irzh freed rescue her from Agni before she is forced to marry him, and save her from the wrath of her own sister, Lara, who believes that Agni should be hers? What price will it cost Zhu Irzh and Jhai Tserai to escape from her contentious family and win free?
Changes continue apace, and we finally get to see more of what Heaven is like in China. I think most readers will end up agreeing with Mhara that it should be changed, and Heaven needs to take a more hands-on, proactive approach to humans on Earth rather than sitting around navel-gazing and being distressed because Humans fail to live up to the high standards that the old Emperor demanded to open Heaven to them. But if the old Emperor was insane, his wife, Mhara's mother, is actively malevolent towards him and the idea that Heaven could be anything but perfect the way it is already.
But the fact that she is willing to kill to keep Heaven the way it is, the way it always was, and not to change with the times, is a sure sign that something is very, very wrong there, and it's a certainty that readers can't judge their heaven by the same standards of the Western conception of Heaven. And yet, can't they? The idea of Heaven, as based only partly on "Paradisio" by Dante, is of an unchanging place where everybody constantly praises God over and over forever and ever. Heaven never changes, that's just the way it is. Kind of boring, actually, especially to us here on Earth. But apparently, when you get to Heaven, that's all you *want* to do. And you never get tired of it.
Leaving aside Heaven changing for the better, we also get to see a less bureaucratic version of Hell in the Indian version. While the Chinese Hell is a Hell of Bureacracy- but unlike its Western Counterpart, not forever, just as Eastern Heaven is also not forever thanks to reincarnation, Indian Hell seems even more Hellish, if you'll pardon the term- even though we only get to see Agni's Hell Realm of the Hunting Lodge. Spirits there are chased and torn apart by the Tiger Demon women and hunted by Agni as part of his own private hunting reserve. No mention is really made of what happens to the spirits afterwards. Are they reincarnated again on Earth, or are they hunted over and over again in the Hunting Lodge area? The second would seem to be more like the Western Hell, which is only a place of punishment, but we aren't given enough information to really tell.
And then there is the in-between Realm, which is apparently reserved for those spirits who do not go to one place or another. Seijin, being human and demon, is drawn to the in-between Realm and has made it his home because he is not fully demon, to be reborn into Hell, nor fully human, either. And there is the hint that other spirits who are of two different natures are also drawn there, along with the spirits of those who Seijin has killed. This third Realm expands the possibilites of the Realms, but what will become of it if Seijin in is killed?
An excellent and exciting book, this fourth in the series. I am actively looking forward to "The Iron Khan", which will be forthcoming sometime this year, to find out what is next in like for Zhu Irzh and Wei Chen. To really understand this book, though, you should read the other three as well. Luckily, that isn't a hardship at all. Highly Recommended.