Liz Williams’ The Demon and the City

Elizabeth Vail is the author of this review.

In this second instalment in Liz William’s creative and highly enjoyable Detective Inspector Chen series about the futuristic Chinese city Singapore Three, its favourite paranormal police officer Chen and his squabbles with Heaven and Hell, Williams takes the narrative in a new direction. Belying the Detective Inspector’s name emblazoned on the book’s cover, she bestows the majority of the novel’s narrative focus on demon inspector Seneschal Zhu Irzh.

Chen, actually, is vacationing with his wife in Hawaii for the novel’s first half. Zhu Irzh, thanks to the current political fiasco in Hell arising from the events of the last novel, is hiding out on Earth and working with Singapore Three’s police department until things back in his home dimension cool down enough for him to return. Nevertheless, with Chen on vacation and all other human beings either oblivious to his supernatural presence or terrified of him, Zhu Irzh is bored and depressed and quite a bit horny, so when he’s confronted by a case of a murdered woman whose mutilated body vanishes from the morgue, and all signs point to the seductive Jhai Tserai, head of successful pharmaceuticals company Paugeng, Zhu Irzh takes the job with more than usual enthusiasm.

Naturally, Zhu Irzh’s investigation reveals that more than just Earthly gain is at stake, especially when his interactions with Jhai Tserai uncover secrets of her own, and when Tserai’s employee Robin develops a distinctly unprofessional attachment to one of Paugeng’s test subjects. Suffice it to say that someone is once again trying to mess with the balance between Hell, Earth, and Heaven, and it’s up to Zhu Irzh (and eventually Chen) to help bring things back into order.

Zhu Irzh is a fascinating character, and The Demon and the City allows a more thorough examination of his character than the first book in the series. While he possesses a natural demonic interest in and enjoyment of chaos, he’s also hampered by the rare psychological complaint of a conscience that he (often poorly) tries to hide from fellow demons and his few human friends. Tserai, who in a less complex story would be a villain, has insecurities and motivations of her own. Similarly, her employee Robin (also the long-suffering girlfriend of the novel’s first murder victim), has to come to terms with her cooperation in her company’s less than legitimate affairs and their impact on innocent people.

Williams’ prodigious world-building and descriptive talents haven’t changed one whit from the last novel — every short, well-paced chapter bursts with exotic colour and spice. As well, the narrative focus on a demon this time instead of a human lends a flavour of black humour to the novel that serves to temper the novel’s mixture of graphic horror and light-hearted satire just as effectively as Chen’s deadpan observations. As well, Robin’s storyline bolsters the narrative with a serious, critical examination of society that gives a depth and distinctiveness to the story and prevents it from descending into well-written, shallow wordcandy.

Liz Williams creates the perfect second book in a series. While maintaining the best elements of the first book, The Demon and the City also maintains a distinctiveness in character, plot, and focus that makes reading it a different, albeit no less enjoyable, experience than Snake Agent.

(Night Shade Books, 2008)

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