Inspector Chen has come far.
Once he was the freak of his department in the near-future Chinese model city of Singapore Three, the departmentﾒs Snake Agent. Chen is a former emissary of the goddess Kuan Yin, and married to a demoness, Inari, and generally considered to be that guy that handles spirits, Heaven and Hell. Over the course of four prior books, his reputation, power and contacts have changed and improved. His partner, Zhu Irzh, once just a seneschal in Hell but now finds himself the stepson of Hellﾒs current Emperor and is engaged to a powerful demoness from a different Hell altogether. Chen has established a lasting friendship with the newest Emperor of Heaven. He even has a rapprochement with the goddess.
In addition to the changes to Chen, however, Singapore Three it has become more acclimated to contacts with spiritual realms. Are they embraced with full-throat enthusiasm? Of course not! But the ostracism of Chen for his dealings with the subject is at an end. With all that has happened, they would have to be. Things have changed in the world, and Inspector Chen still needs to be on the case.
And it is a good thing, too.
In the Iron Khan, Liz Williams raises the stakes again, showing us more and more of the esoteric world behind the world that she began in Snake Agent. From that book forward, Williams has delighted in showing us more and more of the metaphysics that underlie the worlds beyond our first. Weﾒve not only seen the Chinese Hell and Heaven, but have been given glimpses of the afterlives of other regions and cultures as well. In the Iron Khan, Williamsﾒ narrative takes our characters into exotic, strange hells, the Taklamakan desert, and even a journey through time and space itself.
As is usual for the Chen books, the narrative not only focuses on Chen, Zhu Irzh and their friends and allies, but new characters, whose goals, desires and needs bloom like a flower quickly coming into full season. Both the titular antagonist, the Iron Khan, other antagonists, and those who oppose their efforts, such as the Japanese warrior Omi, have their narrative threads intersect with our main characters. They have pasts, presents and futures of their own, and never serve to act for the benefit of the main characters. If anything, these characters draw our main characters and their talents into their stories, for ill or will. Sometimes this is even literal.
Recently, Iﾒve been turned onto the idea that every book rests on four foundations. Plot, Setting, Character and Language, and different readers emphasize these elements to different amounts. Thus, let me say that Ms. Williamsﾒ language and style is not for everyone. She uses a third person omniscient that takes getting used to. This allows her writing to feel like that of a storyteller who is telling you this story over a cup of coffee in an English pub while listening to the rain. For example:
ﾓKuan Yinﾒs vessel sailed on, towing the little houseboat slowly behind it like a tug, reversed. The boat of the former Empress of Heaven receded into the distances of the Sea of Night and that was the last theyﾒd see of her, Inari thought to herself.
She was, of course, wrong.
Do I get the feeling that Williams is about done with this series? Sure. She seems to be building toward something, and in some cases, the characters do not feel as fresh and de novo as in earlier books. I think the book could have been a little longer, to allow the readers, especially newer ones, to get a handle and feel for the characters and allow them to show themselves off. However, given all that, I certainly look forward to the next (and from all indications, last) of the Inspector Chen novels. She even provides a possible hook at the end of this book for a possible plotline for it. Once again, though, starting here with this series is missing the point. If I have intrigued you, hunt down a copy of Snake Agent, and give the world of Inspector Chen a taste. You just might find its rich and distinctively unusual flavors to be to your liking.
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