The Demon and the City by Liz Williams Review

Seneschal Zhu Irzh, demonic scion and star of the first Detective Inspector Chen Novel, is now officially, if grudgingly, a member of the Singapore 3 police force while Chen is on his honeymoon. An investigation lands in his lap, when a socialite ends up missing. He takes on the investigation, getting a whiff of his native Hell in the mix—and it gives him something to do.

At the same time, Robin Yuan, the lesbian lover of the missing socialite, starts an investigation of her own. Robin works at the pharmaceutical Paugeng Corporation, where she conducts secret, torturous experiments on a seemingly kind creature from Hell, something she finds distasteful.

Zhu Irzh and Robin Yuan’s paths cross, and both discover that it’s no coincidence that every investigative strand leads to the Paugeng Corporation, headed by the beautiful, ambitious and charismatic Jhai Tserai, who has a secret of her own.

Eventually, Detective Inspector Chen returns from Hawaii, bringing his arsenal of spells and dedication to justice to the proceedings, something his vice-loving demon friend lacks. By his appearance, the complex and sinister aspects of the mystery begin to reveal themselves.

To tell any more would spoil the surprises in store for the reader of this hybrid novel, which mixes mystery, comedy, science fiction, and Chinese mythology in unexpected ways. Liz Williams plots like a demon (pun intended). She’s like a juggler, keeping the whole improbable plot and setting moving at a brisk clip. Her city of Singapore 3 is believable, full of squalor and opulence, and the futuristic technology mixed in isn’t jarring at all. The supernatural set pieces have a true sense of wonder, and prove that Ms. Williams has done her research in Chinese mythology. The principles of feng shui, ying and yang, and reincarnation run throughout the worldscape.

The characterizations are uniformly good, to the point that you end up even caring for the villains in the story. Zhu Irzh is a wonderfully wicked character, genuinely perplexed by the fact that he has a conscience. He’s sexy, witty and urbane. Detective Inspector Chen is a bit of a ‘straight man’ to his comic foil and you really don’t miss his absence during the novel. Ms. Williams gives him James Bond-like magical gadgetry, the ability to cool cast spells and even another sidekick—a talking badger that spends a large amount of time as a teakettle. The secondary characters are fleshed out as well, sometimes quite poignantly. As frothy a mix as this is, The Demon and The City also has moments of real horror and suspense. Finally, Ms. Williams’ prose is crisp and elegant. There’s a seamlessness to her sentences, as she balances action and pleasing word choices. I look forward to the next Detective Inspector Chen novel.

(The cover illustration by the artist Jon Foster that wraps the book is simply stunning, an amazing collage of scenes from the novel framed by sprays of peach blossoms and other flowers. Nightshade Book will be bringing out a mass market edition that will truncate this cover; the trade paperback is worth it).