Review of The Shadow Pavilion by Liz Williams


A bit fed up with your urban fantasy detectives? Well, if you do fancy a change from the plethora of vampires and/or werewolves that frequent city streets righting wrongs – then look no further than the Inspector Chen books by Liz Williams.

shadowpavilionSet in a near-futuristic city, Singapore Three, Inspector Chen is a Chinese police officer whose remit takes him into Heaven and Hell to investigate crimes. Having said that, the vivid characters surrounding him easily eclipse our self-effacing hero. Chen’s wife is a half-demon on the run from Hell and her pet protector is a badger whose lethal persistence are matched only by his bite and ability to turn himself into a teakettle. Williams even manages to make the Celestial Emperor, Mhara, an intriguing personality – which is a feat. Ineffable goodness, while very pleasant, is often rather boring, except in Williams’ hands…

Singapore Three, Heaven and Hell are described with panache in Williams’ vivid prose. This particular story follows the adventures of a Bollywood director who summons up a Tiger demoness to star in one of his films. However, when he tries to send her back, a trail of destruction is unleashed that pulls in Chen’s partner and the badger. And if that wasn’t enough, the fabled Shadow Pavilion houses a formidable assassin, Lord Lady Seijin, contracted to kill an extremely important personage. If Seijin succeeds, the fragile stability of Heaven, Hell and Earth will dissolve into chaos…

Williams’ lush prose whips this story along at a cracking pace. Now that I’ve read previous Inspector Chen novels, know the characters and fully appreciate the world she has created, I was able to relax and thoroughly enjoy the ride. But – and it’s a major But – I didn’t start this series with the first book Snake Agent. And I nearly didn’t bother going any further. Williams – in common with many authors writing multi-book series – doesn’t go in for any type of Foreword or ‘Story So Far’. I am aware that it’s always something of a judgement call. In most series, perhaps the odd sentence here and there, alluding to previous action or characters is sufficient to fill in the reader. But this world is so very different with its richly textured Eastern origins, that I was frankly floundering until I read Snake Agent. I am aware that this is beginning to sound a bit like a hobbyhorse of mine. But all too often these days, my enjoyment in a book is spoilt because I haven’t started a series at the beginning.

And for any writer experiencing these problems – how to write a succinct ‘Story So Far’ in a lively, entertaining style so you won’t alienate your current fans – look no further than John Scalzi’s third book in his Old Man’s War series The Last Colony. The first couple of pages are a masterclass in how to pull off this trick. Liz Williams et al, please take note. Other than this quibble – I found the book a very entertaining read. But, whatever you do, get hold of Snake Agent, first…


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