DETECTIVE INSPECTOR CHEN BOOK 1
Publisher: Open Road Media
First published: 15 September 2005
This edition published: 17 September 2013
On the cover:
(From the publisher's website.)
When a soul goes missing, an occult detective ventures into Hell to retrieve it
When the fourteen-year-old daughter of Singapore Three’s most prominent industrialist dies of anorexia, her parents assume that Pearl’s suffering has come to an end. But somewhere along the way to the Celestial Shores, Pearl’s soul is waylaid, lured by an unknown force to the gates of Hell. To save their daughter from eternal banishment, they come to Detective Inspector Wei Chen, whose jurisdiction lies between this world and the next.
A round-faced cop who is as serious as his beat is strange, Chen has a demon for a wife and a comfort with the supernatural that most mortals cannot match. But finding Pearl Tang will take him further into the abyss than ever before—to a mystifying place where he will have to cooperate with a demonic detective if he wants to survive. It’s easy, Chen will find, to get into Hell. The hard part is getting out.
In some ways this book sits in the crossroads between several SFF subgenres. There's plenty of Urban Fantasy here, but there's a slight twist in that the "Urban" here doesn't necessarily signify a city on earth. You could argue that this is Portal Fantasy, as there is extensive travelling in another realm - Hell to be precise. But it isn't really the kind of Fantasy that uses the Bible for inspiration. Hell here means Hell in the sense it is described in Chinese mythology. So the supernatural beings are not the ones you'd expect if you grew up in a society influenced by Old Testament culture. This means that the setting itself is quite different from what you would expect when you hear that you are dealing with demons.
Williams has done a great job of making the setting come alive. You get a very good feel for the atmosphere of the earthly city of Singapore Three, a bustling Asian metropolis of the not too distant future. However that is not what I would call the main location here, although we spend a lot of time in it. The main location is without a doubt Hell.
As I said above, this is Chinese Hell, which is a quite different place from the Christian one. It's actually a very interesting place, maybe even worth a visit if you are the adventurous type. There's lots of details about what goes on in this version of Hell, and it really comes alive in the pages of the novel. It's described in such a way that you can see it before you, and it doesn't feel any less real than the Earthly city the rest of the story takes place in.
Storywise this starts out with what is really become a cliche, a women walks into a detective's office. But we have already been warned by the prologue that this isn't an ordinary Crime novel, and it's a matter of moments before everything takes a completely different turn. Once the supernatural elements are firmly introduced the story really gets going, and when it does it rarely lets up on the fast pace.
There is a lot of things happening, and there's several story threads to encompass them all. Although this means that we do jump around a bit in location and point of views, it doesn't mean that it feels disorganised or confusing. Williams manages to keep things going in the direction they are meant to be, and she seems very disciplined in how and when she introduces new viewpoints. There's no feeling of changes cluttering up the forward motion of the narrative.
There are some of the elements of the Crime novel in the story, we get a central mystery that draws us in. This mystery build very nicely, and it twist and turns around satisfyingly. There are surprises coming at several points, and some cliffhangers will make it a necessity to keep reading. Sometimes the structure of the pacing will remind you of an Action-Adventure Thriller, although the novel stays in the Fantasy bookshelf throughout.
There's some situations here that are quite humorous, but that doesn't mean the book is Humorous Fantasy, it stays well away from that. This is played straight. Although it must be stressed that this is a fun novel, with plenty of happenings that will bring a smile to your face.
I always feel that the characters are important in this type of novel,. They are the ones we see the world through, and as such how they function is important to the readers experience. D.I. Chen is a very good character in that respect. He has a lot of depth to him, including the flaws that are so important to adding that third character dimension. Chen is in fact a very welcome acquaintance. He feels like a very natural supernatural detective, an "everyman" supernatural detective if you want. You're very much left with the feeling that this is how such a person would be. To put it very shortly; he feels real.
Chen isn't alone in the book. He has the support of some very interesting characters. Especially his wife Inara and Zhu Irzh. The latter could almost be said to be the main character, and in some parts of the novel he steals the show. He is however subservient to Chen when it comes to getting this story told, but his importance is near the D.I.'s.
There are other characters here too that have lesser roles than these three. And all of them are well drawn. Williams is very good at creating characters you can relate to on some level. Even some of the evil denizens of Hell comes across as interesting to know. (But perhaps not spend time visiting.)
All in all this is very well written Urban Fantasy with a solid world behind it. The setting alone will give this a lot of freshness for those that read this kind of story. It isn't just decorating that sets this story in an Asian locale, the setting is very much integral to the story being told. And the story is a very entertaining one, it's a story that actually could justify the description "fun romp".
I would recommend this to anyone who likes an action filled and fun Urban Fantasy story, and especially those that want stories set in a city outside Europe or North America. This is highly entertaining, and I for one will try to get hold of the other novels in the series.
NOTE: An e-ARC was provided to me by the publisher/NetGalley.
LINKS: Liz Williams Open Road Media