Snake Agent by Liz Williams
The question of what hell is like has been posed by countless authors, filmmakers, and artists. Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Hellblazer and Hellboy of comic book fame have recently tackled the question with charismatic characters like John Constantine and Buffy Summers to lighten the heavy load of all the Hell entails. In these works, Hell is usually somewhere you can visit, but nowhere you would want to stay.
Liz Williams’s new science fiction novel Snake Agent introduces another variation on the theme. In her novel, set in the near future, takes place in Singapore 3, a mass produced spin-off city (like a McDonald’s or Borders but bigger) in China. Detective Inspector Wei Chen is the 13th precinct’s Snake Agent, or the cop in charge of all things supernatural and mystical. DI Chen has dedicated his life to serving the forces of good, but things have gotten messy and gray areas have sprung up. For one, his wife Inari is a demon from Hell (he rescued her on a previous trip). Also, demons are showing up in Singapore 3 trying to steal the ghosts of innocents that are bound for Heaven, and a plot is uncovered that these demons are actually murdering the innocents to get their souls. Chaos ensues.
Hell itself is close to a mirror image of Singapore 3 in terms of layout. It is a bustling city with a government and Ministries of Epidemics, Wealth, and Civil Strife. The denizens of Hell, hellkind, consist of demons and souls of the once living. They own businesses, earn wages, pay taxes and have families. Yes, the air is putrid and the rain burns but it is a functioning and livable city.
Seneschal Zhu Irzh is hellkind, a cop in the Vice squad (to promote and regulate vice) in Hell. He emerges in Singapore 3 to investigate the same case Chen is working on. A perfect foil for Chen, Zhu Irzh is urbane, sleek, political, ambitious and something of a lothario. He and Chen seek the same end from different angles and he presents an alternate view of Hell; it is comfort, sanctuary, and home.
Chen is a reluctant hero and a quintessential cop. He is an average Joe, a public servant doing his duty and trying to balance the demands of Heaven, Hell, the city, the politics that invade all police activities, and his wife. Because of this everyman aura, his forays into mystical dealings with deities, Hell, and with the superstitious untrusting cops in his precinct have a subtle and wry humorous irony.
At the crux of the story is the idea that even in the battle of good and evil, there are the kind of good and the sort of evil. Black and white exist only in the mind of a zealot. Chen is literally and figuratively caught between two worlds. His deity protectress to whom he has sworn allegiance in his fight against evil demands one code of behavior from him and his job dealing with mystical criminals, another. Not to be outdone, his counterpart Zhu Irzh has what most demons do not: a conscience. He finds it mostly annoying and tried to have it removed but it stuck and now he is forced to do his job with it hanging over his head.
Williams’s language is lyrical and elegant. “Uneasily, he turned to bow to the statue of the goddess that stood, book in one hand, peach in the other, at the far end of the courtyard. Her flawless face looked even more austere than usual; Chen felt like the boy at the back of the class, caught with comics or catapult.” The dialogue has a patina of Britishness about it that adds to the feeling of other that permeates the book. The first in a series, Snake Agent set the pace for what will no doubt be an exciting and worthwhile series. I am looking forward to the next Zhu Irzh and Inspector Chen novel.
Snake Agent by Liz Williams
Night Shade Books