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ASTRAL WEEKS

Liz Williams' heavenly way with hell

July 15, 2007

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By Ed Park

As temperatures climb this summer, an armchair visit to hell can help put even the most inhospitable forecasts in perspective.

"Precious Dragon" (Night Shade Books: 248 pp., $24.95) is the third of Liz Williams' novels set in a futuristic underworld extrapolated from Chinese mythology. There's never a break in the weather ("sultry, stuffy, humid and stinking, with the feeling of an approaching storm continually hovering at the edges of consciousness"), and this constancy is one of the sly running jokes in Williams' extravagantly imagined saga.

"Snake Agent" (2005) introduced Detective Inspector Chen of the Singapore Three police department. (In the future, Singapore has franchised itself, branding spinoff cities with its name.) Chen is a brave, hard-working and appealingly worlds-weary guy whose wife happens to be a demon. With the assistance of his goddess, Kuan Yin, he is able to slip between Singapore Three and hell with relative ease. Hired to puzzle out the uneasy afterlife of a tycoon's daughter, he joins forces with a demonic counterpart, the nattily dressed, cigarette-smoking Zhu Irzh. Both need to satisfy their respective bureaucracies (opposed yet somehow complementary), and they eventually uncover a particularly nefarious scheme hatched by the Ministry of Epidemics. Amid the dramatic scrapes and alien landscapes comes a Tao-inflected question of balance: Can the machinations of hell be too evil for hell itself?

Williams' characters slip deftly between interlocking worlds, and despite the doom-and-gloom scenarios, Chen and Zhu Irzh have an easy rapport. Zhu Irzh is a particularly satisfying creation, a demon whose taste in clothes is better detailed than his bodily appearance ("a pale, mantis face and slick black hair," talons, golden eyes), allowing the reader to humanize this already humanlike entity.

But the main character is hell itself, a place of dizzying proportions, byzantine bureaucracy, and — in a seeming contradiction — pullulating life. Consider the strange flora in this passage, in which Inari, Chen's wife, treks through hell:

It was a dark, mud-stained red and it took a moment for Inari to realize that it was forming out of her own blood, generating something in the hideously fertile earth of Hell.... Teeth grazed her ankles, leaving a twinge of poison, and the scattered drops of blood began to grow and seek in turn — They devoured one another as their twisting bodies met, until there were only four: curling five or six feet through the rain.

At once self-consuming and self-perpetuating, hell becomes a perfect vehicle for Williamstalent, a literal hothouse for her hothouse prose.

"Precious Dragon" brings hell in direct conflict with heaven (whose workings were glimpsed in 2006's "The Demon and the City"). It also throws in an ancient race of dragons, and at times offers a prose style verging on synesthesia. Williams follows the course of Embar Dea, a dragon: "A thousand words for water, the sea dragons had, describing the part of the world that was real to them ... sweet water of the mountains, the acid salt up from the complaining ocean trenches. The rainwater from the forests ... scented with earth and leaves, carrying fragments of the woods far out to sea."

Williams toggles between four story lines, which keeps chapters short and snappy, and at a certain point it seems like every one ends with a cliffhanger. Chen and Zhu Irzh are such agreeable heroes that the energy dips when the focus is elsewhere: the kindly Mrs. Pa and her grandson (literally) from hell, Pin the opera-hall prostitute.

Still, anyone who's visited Williams hell will want a ticket back — Zhu's anxiety over his mother's birthday party occasions some of Williams' best comic writing to date. And the description of the Ministry of Lust, one of the many buildings with "no regard for the harmonies of feng shui," reads like the blueprint for a piece of installation art. In Chen's words, "Are you telling me that we're standing in some kind of semi-aware testicle?"

*****

Another supernatural offering full of creatures from beyond has the opposite effect of Williams' lush prose: It chills. Originally serialized online, David Wellington's "13 Bullets" (Three Rivers Press: 324 pp., $13.95 paper) generally delivers its scares in a cool, even clinical tone, reflecting the no-nonsense M.O. of its two vampire-slayers. But every so often Wellington dispenses with the tingles and unleashes a flat-out shock.

Jameson Arkeley is the Lovecraftishly named senior partner, a federal agent who tangled with a vampire, Lares, over 20 years ago and has been lured back into action by the report of a new incident. His gruff condescension toward Laura Coxton, a Pennsylvania state trooper, makes her wonder why he chose her as his partner in the first place, and the tension between the two helps distinguish "13 Bullets" from a simple tale of good versus evil.

Of course, the best vampire stories are complicated to begin with, and come laden with metaphor. Wellington doesn't dwell on what tales of the undead might mean in the current culture, though there are some political undertones. At one point, police uncover a vampire's secret feasting ground: a house full of illegal immigrants, victims picked specifically because their deaths, even when revealed, would remain anonymous.

The gore level is high (and, it must be said, inventive), but even the squeamish might enjoy "13 Bullets" for its satisfying recapitulation and extension of vampire lore. At the heart of both the book's creepiest setting and its most hilarious Catch-22 is Justinia Malvern, a desiccated vampiress who is secretly being kept and monitored in a defunct sanatorium (situated in a sleepy town with the wonderfully sinister name "Arabella Furnace").

Malvern's centuries-long, transatlantic biography has the verisimilitude of something pried from the archives. Her hypnotic powers have allowed her to create a deadly, blood-sucking brood, but thanks to a loophole, she's considered human under the law, and would-be hunters can't legally attack her unless she strikes the first blow. Perversely, for all the blood flowing through these pages, it's this static image of Malvern at rest, willing to bide her inhuman time, that is the book's most frightening suggestion.