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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
The fourth book in the Inspector Chen series, Shadow Pavilion feels like Williams has found her groove. Or perhaps, I have discovered the rhythm to reading her. At any rate, I devoured it in a day. Granted, it was a day that was -25 degrees with the wind chill, but Inspector Chen had the greatest promise of diversion among books on hand, and it was quickly apparent I chose well. Now that Inspector Chen and the ensemble cast has overthrown both Heaven and Hell, they are attempting to focus on issues closer to home. However, mysteries will lead them to new dimensions, and give familiar background characters a chance to shine.
Pauleng Go is a screenwriter who has been burdened with a successful but demanding actress after summoning her from elsewhere–he’s just now getting an idea of just how different she is. Celestial Emperor of Heaven, Mhara, newly arrived to the position, is determined to bring change to Heaven’s staid citizens which sets many of them on edge, including his Imperial Mother. Inspector Chen and the Singapore police department have been perplexed by a string of Hell-run sweatshops springing up in Singapore 3. His wife Inari’s familiar, Badger, has volunteered to retrieve a bug from a dodgy warehouse, accompanied by Chen’s demonic partner, Zhu-Irzh. Events are set in motion when Go’s banishing fails, an assassin is hired to kill the Emperor, and Badger and Zhu-Irzh go missing. Go’s complex situation turns out to involve the mission demon and familiar, giving the reader two main storylines to follow.
Chinese mythology is complex, but generally views the spectrum of heaven-earth-hell differently from Christian mythology, so playing in Williams’ world requires a little bit of adjustment for the underexposed reader. The Shadow Pavilion takes the reader to two new settings in the Chen universe, an unexpected and fun development. One of the challenges of any series is to maintain interest without merely recycling earlier, presumably successful stories. The addition of two unexpected complex settings adds interest and variety to the world-building. One theme Williams has been exploring is that despite prejudice, different cosmological locations share a surprising amount of similarity. For instance, in some ways, bureaucracy rules all three. This book, the focus is less on the realm politics and more on the personal relationships. It makes it more intelligible, and helps focus the plot in a way that promotes emotional engagement.
Narrative structure is both a strength and a weakness. As is typical in the Inspector Chen series, chapters alternate between various characters, this time between Go, Mhara, Chen, Badger, Inari, Zhu-Irzh and the assassin. The multiple perspective is the one aspect of her writing that I dislike; I find that it breaks up her complicated world-building and story-telling into too many pieces. Since Williams does not tell easy, uncomplicated stories, I suspect it is a barrier for many readers. However, since Go is the only new character from the book three, in this case the variety of viewpoints fleshes things out more than confuses. This could also be a result of a more developed writing style. At any rate, it was enjoyable to finally learn more about Inhari and the Badger-spirit, two of the more intriguing side characters. As a quick aside, one of the characters is a composite male-female personality. Fascinating idea and I think respectfully done.
Characterization is as enjoyable as always, helped along by the varied narratives. Williams does achieve a different feel for each one, from the mainstream, egocentric Go’s confused desperation, to Badger’s faithful determination, to Inari’s delicate political balancing. Badger’s irascible personality allows that sharp sense of humor a chance to come out and play in his sections, particularly when he has to be “teakettling.” Bits of humor trickle in, sometimes unconsciously to the characters. There’s characterizing Go’s coping: “Like most writers, he’d always been able to hold his booze” to the demon Zhu Irzh’s career choice:
“When I was a little boy, I was obsessed with warriors. Like most kids, I suppose. I did a lot of reading about them and sometimes my tutors indulged me… When I grew up a bit, I discovered that becoming a warrior meant discipline, austerity, not drinking, that kind of thing. So I joined the vice squad instead.”
Perhaps it has been too long since I picked up a Williams book, but I found the writing style extremely enjoyable, worthy of savoring. It felt like Williams was taking time to look around, describe the world, offer more guidance on the tour, develop emotional reaction. Since areas were new to characters as well, the reader oriented to the new location along with the character. It worked. One of my favorite moments in the first book was a line that had to do with “walking a lobster, much like a French surrealist.” Most of that absurdity is gone here, replaced with growing maturity in world development and lushness in characterization. There were a number of writing moments where I thought, “ahh, nice,” but nothing that stood out, perhaps because the entire book felt like it was consistently high quality. Reading back, I found a few non-spoilery phrases that stuck:
“Again, a blink, for this was not Hell. But the feeling remained with her, a small, sharp memory like a pin in the fold of a dress that cannot be found and which pricks you when you least suspect it.”
“It was, he discovered, a beautiful evening. For once, the air above the sprawl of Singapore Three was clear, fading down into an intensity of sunset green. There was a brief flash of gold from the horizon, along the line of the sea, and Mhara felt the benediction of the sun as it slipped out of sight. He had a sudden, dizzying vision of the sun as a distant star, the little zip and flicker of the world as it orbited. Then it was gone and the lights of the city lay before him, peaceful in this liminal time of twilight in spite of the faint roar of traffic.“
The ending wraps the issues in this book up rather well, but leaves the way open for a very obvious plot continuance in book five. Unfortunately, because so much of the characterization and plotting rests on events in prior books, I doubt it would do as well as a stand-alone work. Williams does throw in some tiny nutshells, but they are definitely tiny and may not work for those that like concrete definitions. Overall, one of those series installments that has me guaranteed to pick up the next book. Crossing my fingers that it maintains the same quality.
As an aside, I bought the hardcover, which is absolutely beautiful. Interesting, unusual artwork on the book jacket cover, heavy paper, solid weight. I’ve already looked for The Iron Khan in hardcover, but it appears it was only published in paperback. Alas.