Detective Inspector Chen is the Singapore Three police department's snake agent - the detective in charge of supernatural and mystical investigations. Chen has several problems: in addition to colleagues who don't trust him and his mystical ways, a patron goddess whom he has offended and a demonic wife who's tired of staying home alone, he's been paired with one of Hell's own vice officers, Seneschal Zhu Irzh, to investigate the illegal trade in souls. Political pressures both Earthly and otherworldly seek to block their investigations at every turn. As a plot involving both Singapore Three's industrial elite and Hell's own Ministry of Epidemics is revealed, it becomes apparent that the stakes are higher than anyone had previously suspected.
One of my favorite kind of books to read are ones that mix genres, especially when those genres are sci-fi and fantasy. It allows me to keep my computer while still letting me do magic and battle ogres (or whatever), so how could I not love it? I first heard about the Detective Inspector Chen series from a thread on Mobileread, and I immediately wanted to check it out. Not only does the series mix sci-fi and fantasy, but there’s also a bit of mystery and police drama thrown in as well. Fantastic!
Snake Agent is the first book in the series, and it’s a whopper. We’re introduced to a lot of new ideas and people, though never in an overwhelming or confusing way. In fact, I sometimes felt that some things were left out or dropped too early, like it was forgotten somewhere earlier in the plot. Normally that sort of thing annoys me, but I honestly didn’t notice until after I finished reading, and I’m reasonably sure at least half of those things will be addressed in the next few books.
Anyway, a lot of interesting things are in this book– besides the demons and gods and detectives, of course. There’s interesting futuristic technology, like a liquid computer whose system is run by, um, plugging everything into humans and pumping it through them (gross). Also franchise cities, one of which Chen works in (called Singapore Three!), a cure for AIDS, and various other rather vague technological advancements. I especially liked that technology and supernatural were often paired together: the demons in hell could get email from humans on Earth just as easily as I can get emails from Nigerian spammers.
The writing is beautiful, the mystery is just on the edge of shocking without being disgusting, and the characters are vibrant, if slightly lacking in depth. Actually, I take that back; I think Chen, Sergeant Ma (his reluctant accomplice), and Seneschal Zhu Irzh (the demon cop) had a lot of depth to them. Everyone else, including Chen’s wife, didn’t. Maybe they’ll get their turn in another book.
I liked the interaction between the “real” world and the supernatural world, especially how Chen doesn’t automatically categorize demons as evil, no-good beings, nor does he automatically categorize gods as being all good. He’s a shades of grey kind of person, and I appreciate that in a character– especially when that character is a detective! Gives him depth, and so on.
The supernatural/paranormal parts were especially well done, though it’s hard to talk about them without wanting to quote the entire book or simply squealing like a fangirl all over this post. Simply put, it was fantastic. Like the Dresden Files but less complicated and with more moral implications/god involvement. Magic (and gods) are very heavily intertwined with the world of D.I. Chen, and even people who don’t believe in it are affected, as in the case of Mrs. Tang here, after she dies and is waiting in the Chinese equivalent of Limbo:
Chen could believe this, thinking of chic Mrs Tang as she had been in life. Now, stripped of her designer clothes and her status and social position, she was nothing more than just another shade. It had often occurred to Chen how shattering it must be for someone who had devoted their whole life to material possessions to suddenly find themselves in a world where status depended on entirely more intangible matters.
So, in short: awesome fantasy/sci-fi futuristic mystery with an interesting plot and lot of potential in future books.
Read: April 2009