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Precious Dragon by Liz Williams

Sometimes, I write coherent sentences consecutively. Letters of complaint should be directed to my English teacher (except he’s probably dead by now — yes, I am that old).

He was a rugby-playing bear of a man with an iconoclastic streak who, on occasion, would enliven Monday morning lessons with a blow-by-blow account of the weekend’s match followed, more significantly, by a colourful version of the evening’s subsequent entertainment. As a “rugby player” archetype, he loved his beer, claimed never to feel fear and was always willing to succumb to the charms of willing daughters and discreet wives. Hence, my vocabulary was enriched from an early age. Among the many stories I recall was a Saturday when his team had won too easily. Bored, all the players and their supporters decided to invade the Fish Quay.

At the time, I lived in one of the satellite villages that lurked in the penumbra of a sprawling city of quite startling contrasts. Some areas were bastions of high wealth and privilege. Others were as close to Hell as you could get without having to go through the formality of dying. The targeted Fish Quay was the stuff of legend. Whenever the Arctic released another ice storm into the wild, all the fishing fleets from the Norwegian Sea and, sometimes, the Barents Sea, would run ahead of the weather front. The prudent steered for the nearest ports. The die-hards let the storm blow them the extra miles to us. Their drifters, old lorry tyres lashed to gunnels to reduce the splintering, were jam-packed together in the sheltered moorings and immediately unloaded. Such fish as they had in their holds was sold to raise cash, leaving the crews to drink round the clock until it was safe enough to go back out again (or the money ran out). Add in the Saturday night drinkers and you had a combustible mix every time the glass fell.

But the arrival of two well-oiled rugby teams that winter night provoked a free-ranging mêlée that crossed national, linguistic and cultural boundaries and wrote itself into the myths of the area for years to come. All it needed was the local magistrates to read the Act for it to be an official riot except, of course, all the law enforcement officials were wisely elsewhere occupied. The ambulance crews lucky enough to be on duty simply stood by and collected the bodies when the fighting died down. The walking wounded resumed their friendships and consumption of alcohol, and later made their own way to boats or homes to sleep it off. Those were the days.

Which brings me to Precious Dragon by Liz Williams (Night Shade Books. 2007) — the third Inspector Chen novel set in the melting pot that is Singapore Three. In a future affected by global warming, Singapore will franchise versions of itself to other countries as a well-managed city environment. All goes well with the first two new cities, but the third is sited where the dimensional boundaries between the local Taoist Heaven and Hell prove to be thin. So the human city has to deal with the reality of the various supernatural factions interfering in everyone else’s affairs. Naturally, like any really good golf club, Heaven feels that its exclusiveness is being undermined by the need to accept an increasing number of more common souls. While Hell is always formulating dastardly plots to bring everyone else down to their level.

In this latest attempt to keep order between the feuding Celestials and the denizens of Hell, the all-too-human Inspector Chen and his demon colleague Zhu Irzh (recently promoted to Earth from Hell’s Vice Squad) are teamed with Mi Li Qi, a warrior from the Heavenly Host — there’s a new Equal Opportunities Policy in force. Now think about it. If you were supposed to be enforcing law between feuding gods and demon lords, would you go down to the Fish Quay if a fight broke out? Well, sadly, the three have no say in the matter. They are simply pitched in and expected to survive.

Structurally, we have a multiple point-of-view approach, with short chapters chopping between the main characters until everything winds together in the big climax. There are one or two slight problems of continuity in the early stages and the sequence inside the Ministry of Lust lacks some logic, but the overall narrative development is well-managed and pacey. This is aided by the uncluttered prose. When writing more “traditional” fantasy, Williams can be baroque (as in some of the short stories in the pleasing collection The Banquet of the Lords of Night), but the Chen series is stylistically economical and does just enough to create atmosphere and then moves the plot along.

The books are not so much “comic fantasy” as fantasy told with a wry sense of humour. Thus, the rhythms of life (or after-death existence for those who have shuffled off the mortal coil) are full of the same somewhat depressing mundanity no matter which realm the characters find themselves in. Sons are prone to be embarrassed by their mothers, grandmothers can be relied on to dandle a grandson on their knees and fiancées can sometimes make a welcome appearance. But when a storm of circumstances blows all into the lowest reaches of Hell, invaders from the local rugby club can find themselves witnesses to the fate of Emperors. Fortunately, ambulances are not much in demand as the majority of the combatants are already dead. And, when it’s all over, the walking wounded stagger off to their homes (old and new), no matter how distant.

For those interested in such things, it appears that the fourth book in the series, The Shadow Pavilion, due in 2009 may be about to go sideways into parallel underworld realms, probably starting with the Hindu. I’ve already ordered my copy. For those of you who haven’t tried the novels, read them in order. Although this latest volume does stand on its own quite well, the experience is enriched by knowing who everyone is and why they are where they are.

For other reviews of work by Liz Williams, see A Glass of Shadow, Winterstrike, The Iron Khan and Worldsoul.

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.

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