Friday, April 3, 2009

The Demon and the City

I've been putting off writing about this book for nearly a week now, because I'm not sure what to say about it. When we get down to the crux of why someone usually reads a review, the facts are these: I enjoyed it and I will buy the next book in the series by Liz Williams. In fact, the book flew by (despite the sometimes hideous copy-editing errors—my offer to DC goes to you too, Night Shade Books), which is a credit to the terrifically engaging setting that the books have. On the one hand, there is the hint of a future where a city named Singapore Three can exist; not much has been done so far with the potential technological future that would allow the existence of such a place, but it lurks in the background as a taunting suggestion of what allows the other setting twists to happen. Secondly, gods and demons exist, interacting regularly with the inhabitants of Singapore Three, and especially our main characters, Inspector Chen and Zhu Irzh (the demonic transfer from Hell's own vice squad). But these creatures don't just interact on the mortal coil; often the action of the novels moves to Heaven or Hell themselves, offering tantalizing views of not only a different culture, but that different culture's mythologies. And in a special twist, new to this second book in the series, we find out that other cultures have their own Heavens and Hells as well. Thus far, still not much has been done with the potential in these settings, but that potential is there waiting to be tapped.

What makes the novels, and especially this one, so engaging is the depiction of the protagonist. In the first novel, Inspector Chen is the hero, and he offers a guided tour of Singapore Three and Hell adequately. But Zhu Irzh takes over the primary role in The Demon and the City, and it appears Williams has a much greater affinity for the demon and his point of view. He is also a much more fascinating character than Chen, not only because he is a demon, complete with tail and libido, but because he is not a complacent character. Chen is fairly happy with his life, not questioning much and just moving along from case to case in a work-a-day fashion. Thinking about it, this makes sense; even the most exciting job (investigating supernatural crimes and regularly visiting Hell) can grow repetitious when it is done often enough. All of this is brand new to Zhu Irzh, and his sense of wonder and questioning everything (even himself) pervades this second book. He takes delight in the new, and since pretty much everything we see in these first novels is new to us, his enthusiasm and uncertainty reflects our own.

The plot involves a battle between chaos and order, which a demon from outside the Chinese mythos attempts to use for purposes that are never quite made clear. But the ghost of a murdered co-conspirator begins to act out, bringing the police into the mix in the form of Zhu Irzh, subbing in for a vacationing Inspector Chen. Irzh begins investigating and finds himself hopelessly attracted to the antagonist (and the book makes it quite clear who the bad demon is), which in turn causes the plans for battle to begin to fall apart. It's no help that the antagonist attempted to use a captured angel to infect the inhabitants of Heaven with a virus, never realizing that the "angel" has a much higher position in Heaven than even she could imagine. It's also no help that the wage-slave charged with testing the "angel" with the virus falls in love with the angel and plots his escape into Singapore Three (it's crazy hijinks in the Chinese mythos, folks!). More chaos ensues than the demon can possibly have hoped for and the plan swiftly grows out of control, falling as it does on the Chinese Day of the Dead, when the barriers between natural and supernatural are at their very thinnest.

Ultimately, why the characters do what they do is not as important as their doing it. That is, the real joy in the reading is the introduction of some wonderful characters and letting them interact. There is some humor and a little horror in the events as they unfold, but it's nothing so satisfying as watching the characters round out and become fully realized.

I read previews of the upcoming books in the Inspector Chen series, and they have a lot of potential for these characters while also promising some fascinating plots. But truth to tell, there is nothing spectacular about these novels; they are wonderfully entertaining and a lot of fun to read. I can't recommend the first two enough for pure escape literature. I imagine they would be delightful on the beach or on an airplane ride, not to mention at any of your favorite reading haunts.

(Mrs. Speculator points out I have recently read The City and the City and The Demon and the City. She thinks I should find The Demon and the Demon, but I can't get any results from a googling.)

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