By Liz Williams
Night Shade Books, 2006
Much has been made of the gorgeous cover art supplied by Jon Foster for Liz Williams' Detective Inspector Chen novels for Night Shade Books. And rightly so. The lush painting presents Eastern culture, iconography, and Asian mythology with virtuosity. Foster's illustration for Williams' novel The Demon and the City, the sequel to Snake Agent, even won the Spectrum Award this year.
But this is a book review, not a cover art review. And although the function of an intriguing cover is to get a potential reader to open the book, it is only the entry point.
Snake Agent takes place in a vague near-future, when Singapore has developed franchises of its city-state to six other locations. This particular story takes place in Singapore Three, a coastal city located somewhere near the South China Sea. Detective Inspector Chen Wei works in Singapore Three's police department, and his is the supernatural beat. Gods and demons are an everyday presence in this world, and Chen is an acolyte of Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, although he is no longer on her good side after he married a demoness. His line of work leads him to a case involving the ghost trade, where innocent girls are murdered and their souls then transported to Hellish brothels. During his investigation, he encounters Zhu Irzh, a demon seneschal with Hell's Vice Division, who is on the case as well. And in natural buddy-movie fashion, they partner up to combine their forces.
The story soon reveals a vast conspiracy orchestrated by one of Hell's prominent ministries, which, if not stopped, will have catastrophic effects on both Earth and Hell alike. Tied into all of the proceedings is Chen's demon wife Inari, who escaped Hell and an unwanted betrothal in order to be with him, an act that both her family and her erstwhile fiancÚ are not keen to forget or forgive. And complicating everything is the arrival of Maoist demon-hunter No Ri Shi, assigned to assist Chen on the case, who has no tolerance for shades of grey, or of demon wives and police partners.
Williams' story is full of fantastic and horrific imagery, and showcases a wild imagination for the practical dealings with the supernatural. Inari is guarded by a familiar, which alternates its appearance between a striped badger and a rusty teakettle. Zhu Irzh is attacked by a salamander that masquerades as a frying pan. The sign of high ranking in demon society is the backward positioning of the feet. Kwan Yin often manifests in physical form to Chen Wei.
However, my one major beef comes in the setting of the novel. We are told that Singapore Three is the third franchise city that Singapore has developed, but it is never explained why this might be the case. The setting is vaguely mentioned to be located near the South China Sea, but this body of water stretches from China to Vietnam and all the way down to Malaysia, so it's difficult to tell where exactly the story might take place; references to Chinese cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou are specifically mentioned, as well as a cooler climate than tropical Singapore, so it's logical to deduce that Singapore Three exists in a northerly latitude, most likely in China itself. But if the city is supposed to be located in China, why is there no mention of the language or the culture beyond the supernatural connection?
In fact, besides the use of Chinese mythology to explain the afterlife, the setting barely feels Asian at all. The characters and physical locations could have been placed in any Western city without much discernible difference. The characters' speech patterns are also recognizably Western in their grammar and idioms. And if Singapore is specifically invoked as the developer of these franchised cities, why then is there no trace of Singaporean culture? While the majority of Singapore's citizens are ethnically Chinese, the country is not in China, or even ruled by China. It has its own personality, its own traditions. No mention is given of food, which is a huge part of Singaporean life. No one speaks in Singlish, the creole combination of English with Malay words with its own distinctive grammatical structure.
Also, since China in Williams's future is presented as a powerhouse, why would they possibly want to sell or rent part of their land to Singapore? Right now, China does not acknowledge Tibet, Hong Kong, or Taiwan as autonomous countries, and still controls daily life at the micro-management level. It makes no sense that they would willingly let another country establish an autonomous city within their borders. And what would be the motivation anyway in Singapore establishing these franchise cities? The reason, or even a hint at the reason, is never given.
These questions may not bother someone unacquainted with Southeast Asia, but they do present a problem with regard to cultural appropriation. Williams chose to set her novel in a very distinct region of the world, and if her presentation of that culture is not accurate or honest, it does a disservice both to herself and to that region's inhabitants. For recent examples of excellent cultural representation in fantastic fiction, one need only look to John Burdett's portrayal of Thailand in Bangkok 8, or to Geoff Ryman's representation of fictional Karzistan in Air. Both settings—the thriving big city of Bangkok, and the small rural village of Kizuldah—feel authentic and well-researched, and show an accurate representation of their settings. Snake Agent does not match up in this regard.
That said, the novel was enjoyable on its own merits. The plot moves at the brisk clip of a police thriller, and the characters are distinct and intriguing, with clear motivations and unique personalities. Williams may have misstepped with the cultural details, but she has fashioned an exciting and unusual story that kept me reading all the way to the end.