Snake Agent

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Liz Williams

Published: 2005

Reviewed: 2008-06-14

Publisher: Night Shade Books

Every once in a while, I come across a book that puts forth a new
synthesis of worlds. Often it's bad, but when the author knows enough
to make it good, it's really good. Ms. Williams "Snake Agent" lies on
the knife's edge between: excellent except for a few really painful
bits that just keep sticking with me and interfering with otherwise
pleasant memories of the book.

The basic idea is this: the book is set in near-future China, and the
Chinese visions of the afterlife are real, though somewhat modified.
What this means, more than anything else, is bureaucracy: temporal,
heavenly, and demonic. Everything operates by rules, and exceptions
to those rules can be had for those with influence, power, or money.
Our hero is a police officer on the spirit-world beat, and gets sucked
into a case that has him working with a demon police officer.

It's complicated, it's fast-paced, it's very strange but almost
entirely self-consistent. And I really enjoy when an author gets
world-building right and has me pacing along, learning about their
cosmology and the incredibly blase attitude that the cops develop
towards it ("This is Tuesday, it must be Bad Dog Village", describing
the package-tour of the afterlife).

Only two decisions on the part of Ms. Williams marred my enjoyment,
and they needn't have happened. First, for some inexplicable reason,
the book starts with a "preview" chapter which is a hyped-up retelling
of a scene that happens much later in the book. It's very strange
because when you get to the actual scene, it's told in a much more
straightforward way that fits with its actual importance (not very) as
opposed to this weird, overinflated "movie trailer" that starts the
book. There was just no reason for that preview chapter to be there
at all. But at least it didn't really hurt anything.

The second decision was again an over-theatricalization of the plot,
but this time it actually messed with some of the book. OK, I can
accept screwy technology stuff: that's part and parcel of sci-fi, and
the author gets to ask me to suspend disbelief. But there's a limit,
especially when the author wants me to accept ridiculous degrees of
universality of a technology, and wants me to do so for no good
reason. I mean, it was plenty dramatic enough without getting the
stoplights involved.

Still, a fine effort from Ms. Williams, and enough to make me want to
read more of her books---there's apparently several featuring the same
main characters. I'll be interested to see whether the technological
idiocy gets carried over into the next, or whether it was just there
to be cinematic. Much though I love consistency, I have to say I'm
hoping for the latter.