Shadow Pavilion by Liz Williams
This is the fourth outing in the Detective Inspector Chen series by Liz Williams following on Precious Dragon, and it sees the continuation of a trend to flatten the narrative. When we began this series, it was fairly well centred on the eponymous hero. Now, even his wife’s familiar gets a separate POV thread. Not that I’m complaining, of course. I’m all for equal opportunities among characters representing different deities, demons, species, races, religions and points of origin (Earth, Heavens, Hells and now Between). But we should, perhaps, stop calling these books “Chen” novels and come up with something more appropriate: the “Singapore Three Novels” is a little boring; “Celestial Omnibus” is already taken (an interesting short story by E. M. Forster) and Heaven is, by definition, not for all; “Heavenly Magic” excludes the demons. I’m open to your suggestions.
Anyway, here we have the direct continuation of the story from Precious Dragon with Mhara’s accession as Celestial Emperor triggering an assassination plot from his Conservative mother, i.e. she prefers to keep the status quo in Heaven rather than see it change into a form of hippie commune bent on helping deserving cases on Earth. I mean, who does this young upstart think he is? Coming into office with his head full of nonsense about Heaven actually having a role to play in guiding humans and ensuring they stand the best chance of getting into Heaven. Way over the top! Heaven and Hell should never interfere in humans’ lives. Candidates for the afterlife should live their own lives, make their own mistakes, and live with the consequences after death. So since she believes passivity is best, she hires an unstoppable assassin to kill her son, the new Emperor. You just can’t get more passive than that!
In other threads, we have a double diversification to slot into our “world view”. It seems there are multiple Heavens and Hells, each pairing based on its own religious precepts. In theory, there should be no direct movement “between” the different “places” but, of course, those with the right powers can slip from one to the other (often by passing through the human world). The second new element in the story is the “discovery” of the “Between”. This is a middle ground representing, as it were, the cracks “between” all the different places and those with the right power can use it as a kind of dimensional door for more direct access from one place to another. Our invincible assassin, Seijin, lives in the Between and draws on its power to preserve and enhance “their” life (don’t ask, it’s complicated) in the titular Shadow Pavilion.
As to the rest of the plot lines, we have a better view of Chen and his demon wife Inari (not forgetting her familiar). Zhu Irzh and Jhai move closer to a possible marriage, and Mhara and Robin manage to maintain their relationship despite his new role as the Celestial Emperor. Put all this together and the novel bowls along at a good pace with the introduction of the assassin especially pleasing. As always, Williams’ prose is engaging and gives us just enough to flesh out the bare bones of narrative. As technical aside, there is a slight sloppiness to the typesetting with a surprising number of widows and orphans, sometimes with single lines left hanging at the end of chapters. I know I’m old-fashioned but, when it’s so easy to avoid, why not avoid this unsightliness?
My only caveat is the ending. The resolution of Jhai’s thread is completely perfunctory and unsatisfying. It’s as if the author, not sure whether to kill Jhai off to temper Zhu Irzh in the resulting emotional fires, tossed a coin and, in the next sentence, declared her safe. While Inari’s accommodation with Sei Lan is distinctly disconcerting — hopefully this element will be further explored and explained in the next novel in the cycle titled The Iron Khan. Overall, this is the least “detective” oriented book with no real crime to be solved but, as a continuation of the series it works well and, at times, it’s highly enjoyable. Not unnaturally, I have already ordered the next.
This is one of the books published by Night Shade Books. As a matter of principle, all serious readers should support small presses by buying direct or through independent bookstores and dealers. However, the SFWA has now placed this publisher on probation (see this Note). Perhaps you should reconsider your support for this small press.