The Iron Khan by Liz Williams
The Iron Khan by Liz Williams (Morrigan Books, 2010) is the fifth Detective Inspector Chan novel featuring the ever-expanding cast list from the previous novels plus a new villain, the eponymous Khan, who’s working his way up through the ranks of time to become the leader of as many different armies as he can conscript. This is quite an ingenious idea as the Khan wheels and deals his way through different times and dimensions, negotiating with local leaders or simply acquiring troops as he goes along. It’s not so much that he’s immortal. Rather that he’s managed to develop the power of drawing on the local magic to renew himself. Not surprisingly, his social reputation suffers as this includes a sadistic delight in sucking the life out of those he captures, which makes him a kind of vampire, but not the traditional blood-sucking variety.
So off we go with Inspector Chen himself summoned to Heaven to investigate the loss of an important book, while Zhu Irzh and Jhai fly off on a business and pleasure trip to look at the site of a new chemical plant. This leaves Inari and the familiar badger in the capable hands of Miss Qi, a Celestial warrior, as a blast from the past lands them in the Sea of Night rather closer than they would like to the ship on which the Empress of Heaven has been confined (supposedly for everyone’s safety). To make life more exciting, we have some very old mummies come back to life (only one of which survives), meet a ghost or two, watch a Japanese warrior come into his own, and find an old explorer to offer advice and assistance when the going gets tough. It all gets mixed together with considerable style (although I do confess to losing the badger at one point) as the Empress tries to recapture the power she once enjoyed and the Khan moves steadily forward in time until he arrives in Singapore 3 (after it gets put back where we expect it to be, of course). To find out why the Earth (although not the air) goes through several different versions, you’ll have to read this book.
Interestingly, we’re adding ever more different sets of belief systems and their respective Heavens and Hells. The entire Earth is a literal mosaic of different overlapping dimensions (none of which are supposed to fold together although they can co-exist side-by-side — linking people together so they can travel separately but together is not very logical since there’s no guarantee transport of equal speed would be available in each dimension). And that’s not forgetting the Between through which knowledgeable people can sneak or entire populations can escape to at a push. Then we have the little warrior en ventre sa mere who seems to be making an impression on everyone when the situation requires it. So it’s a busy universe.
One of the less pleasing changes has been the tone. When we started off on the Inspector Chen series, the feel of the prose was more formal and there was a general crispness about the entire enterprise. The Iron Khan has a more diffuse, slightly chatty style in which Liz Williams seems to be more directly narrating the story than acting as a dispassionate author. There’s also a slightly more free-wheeling approach to the plot development. Although everything does hang together quite neatly, I’m not wholly convinced the Khan emerges as a really credible threat. He’s left rather more in the shadow without us getting a clear look at him, while the Empress comes from the other side as a known quantity, but equally doesn’t really seem fully realised as dangerous. She lurks and only manages a little magic until her major effort at the end.
Then comes the very strange epilogue or separate short story titled The Lesson in which we see something of Chen’s early life as he goes through some weird kind of therapy to remember something important about his past. My confusion comes from the copyright reservation which is only for The Iron Khan. An additional short story is usually the subject of a separate assertion of authorial rights, but I struggle to see this as adding anything to the broader narrative of the novel. Finally, a general comment about the typesetting. We have a depressing number of widows and orphans, and in many instances, the kerning and tracking is terrible. I understand it takes a little longer to produce pagination that’s aesthetically pleasing, but it’s worth the effort. If a publisher is going to produce text with perfect justification, a little more thought should go into the typesetting. Then, we have the extraordinary appearance of hyphenation in The Lesson. Quite simply, this is wholly unprofessional.
So, ignoring the physical production problems, this is not one of the best Chen novels. If you’re going to do “good” vs “evil”, the “evil” should be better defined and the prose style should be more formal. The chatty tone is not quite right for the subject matter. Nevertheless The Iron Khan is an enjoyable romp as well-liked characters go through their paces. Since, at one point, it was doubtful this novel would ever see the light of day, it’s reassuring Liz Williams has negotiated the difficulties and emerged with a new book to her name. What’s scheduled to be the final Inspector Chen book for now is called Morningstar and is due at the end of 2011. I shall acquire it to see where the story goes next.
The jacket artwork by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law is particularly pleasing.