Snake Agent

Posted by : atcampbell | On : September 19, 2006

Snake Agent by Liz Williams

Eleven people attended this meeting at A. T.’s home. This was the first occasion most of the group had been to the house, so there was a brief home tour before the meeting started. Our topic, Snake Agent by Liz Williams, is about a police detective in near-future Asia who investigates a case involving ghosts and demons, which eventually leads him to visit the Chinese underworld. Nine of us had finished the book, and three had read Liz Williams before.

Several in the group commented that they would normally not have read this book because they do not like procedural mysteries and genre mixing. They read it because it was on our reading list and it had a great cover. We found a lot to discuss.

We liked Detective Inspector Chen and his well-realized world of Singapore Three. Chen’s status as an ostracized detective of supernatural cases was a clever twist on the standard loner detective. He had a strange but interesting relationship with his patron goddess. We enjoyed his uneasy temporary alliance with Zhu Irzh, a law enforcement officer from Hell. The back story of Chen and his wife was so rich that many people mistakenly assumed there was an earlier novel in the series. There were several other memorable characters that we’d like to see again.

We thought this book’s concept of gods and magic was intriguing. We enjoyed the descriptions of the underworld and journeys to and from Earth. We wondered how many of the metaphysical concepts actually came from Chinese culture. The concept of bribing one’s way to a smoother trip to the afterlife seemed appropriately Chinese. The idea of Hell filled with bureaucracy and power struggles worked. We were amused to learn that hellish laboratories were the source of much technology used on Earth, including television.

We generally appreciated the writing style used in Snake Agent. Scenes of martial arts battles and explosions practically leaped off the page, and many of us found this book hard to put down. Some of the imagery of scenes in Hell was striking, although one person commented that such scenes should not be read while one was trying to eat. The non-visual senses (smells, sounds, etc.) were handled strongly. We noted several clever and well-turned phrases. Someone remarked that the author did a good job of writing the story deeply in Detective Chen’s viewpoint. One person in the group who reads extremely fast was less happy with the writing style, commenting that “the film broke down occasionally.”

Since this book has such a variety of story elements, we had a hard time determining its genre. Ultimately we decided on supernatural crime. We briefly compared this book’s genre mixing to that of another recent Reading Group book, The Atrocity Archives.

We were pleased to hear that a sequel had just been released, and we fought over the one copy that Willie had brought to sell at the meeting. Afterward, we had a nice dinner at Curra’s Grill.

— A. T. Campbell, III