You can anticipate certain strengths from a novel by Liz Williams. An inventive plot—that's a given. A vivid and detailed imagining of setting—that can be expected, also. Wide-ranging action, usually brisk and well paced, is also assured. These qualities are shared by two very different novels: Precious Dragon, a light fantasy with comedic touches, and Bloodmind, a dark SF narrative. In one case, the result is satisfying; in the other, this reader was left feeling that something was wanting.
Precious Dragon is the third installment in the Detective Inspector Chen series, following Snake Agent (2005) and The Demon and the City (2006). Chen, a paranormal crime detective in Singapore Three, and Zhu Irzh, the demon policeman from Hell who was exiled to Earth in an earlier novel, are assigned to escort a Heavenly emissary, Miss Qi, on her visit to Hell. But that is only one of the story strands that make up the novel—there are three more, and all, although they begin independently, will eventually be drawn together: a young child named Precious Dragon is sent from his parents in Hell to stay with his still-living grandmother, Mrs. Pa, in Singapore Three; a teenaged boy prostitute, Pin, is used in an occult ceremony and his spirit is cast adrift in Hell, separated from his living body; and a dragon named Embar Dea leaves her solitary lair and reunites with her dragon kin to go to war. This frequent switching between the different narrative strands could be a heavy weight—in some books, it can tire or annoy in the same way as watching television while a restless spouse channel-surfs with the remote. But, even though it takes a good part of Precious Dragon for the different elements to come together into a unified whole, there are enough connections earlier in the novel—for example, Mrs. Pa's daughter, Mai (Precious Dragon's mother), finds Pin's lost spirit in Hell—to make worthwhile the effort of keeping the parallel narratives straight.
And the story does dance along lightly, with all kinds of entertaining twists and turns. Hell itself is quite a fun place to explore, with its bureaucracies and officialdom—after all, if you want to reach the greatest efficiency in delivering sin and misery, then you must have a Ministry of Lust, and a Ministry of War, another of Epidemics, and so on.
Precious Dragon himself is the center of the mystery. He is obviously not an ordinary little boy, but only his mother and the frightening kuei, the Storm Lords, the dreaded security forces of Hell, know what his secret is. His mother wants to shield him, the kuei want to destroy him, and the dangerous job of keeping him alive falls to his grandmother and Inspector Chen's wife, the demon Inari.
"Hell is a wicked place," Inari says, "and so is Earth, sometimes" (p. 107). What no one realizes, at first, is that so is Heaven. All the different plotlines come together at last in a satiric tour de force: political intrigue and corruption are uncovered, and the forces of Heaven and Hell clash, with—what more could you ask for?—the destruction of the world at stake.
Bloodmind is a dark contrast to Precious Dragon. It opens with the event that concluded the earlier Darkland: the assassin Vali's discovery of the murder of her friend Idhunn. Save for this one linking event, a shock that turned up on the last page of Darkland when it seemed the story was complete (rather in the manner of old movie serials), Bloodmind is not a continuation of a story that was cut in two, but begins a new episode. Moments after her discovery of her friend's death, the keep is attacked and overrun by a Morrighanu force made up of technologically enhanced women warriors from Darkland. Vali is taken and interrogated by the commander of the Morrighanu, who wants to know what she has learned about "bloodmind."
The key to the novel, both in theme and in the drive of the plot, is consciousness, seen as the line between human and animal. There are, on each of the three planets involved in the story, variations on genetic modifications that give and take away self-awareness. On Muspell, there are creatures known as the selk, genetically modified seals that have intelligence during the cold season, and revert to animal minds during the warm season. On Nhem, the men have altered women so that they are never fully conscious: they understand like animals and go through life in a mental fog. They cannot speak, comprehend only a few words, and exist merely to serve men and bear children. And on Mondhile, the people alternate between a normal intelligent state and "bloodmind," a feral state during which they lead fierce, animal-like lives. The genetic manipulation that created each of these conditions was performed by long-ago ancestors of the people who inhabit the planets now. Vali thinks the vitki, her people's enemies, are conducting research, trying to isolate the switch in the selks' genes that causes their sentience to be seasonally switched on and off, in order to create a virus that will duplicate the effect, for use as a weapon. Now the Morrighanu, who have captured her home base, seem to be interested in the subject, also.
Soon after Vali is captured by the Morrighanu, the selk break her prison open and release her, asking that she help their kindred who are being held by vitki experimenters. She is put in a small sea vessel and quickly whisked away to meet a surprising ally in an effort to understand what is going on.
Bloodmind employs the same multiple-narrator technique used in Precious Dragon, telling three separate stories in shifting viewpoints. On Muspell, Vali is the principle character, and it is her voice, and her quest to find her friend's killer, that dominate the novel. On Mondhile, Sedra is obeying the custom of her people and leaving, going out into the wild to die, now that she has reached the end of her useful life. She intends to return to Moon Moor, where she and her sister lived while they were in the bloodmind: her sister was kidnapped by alien people from a flying ship, and she intends to find out what happened, if she can. And there are the events told by Hunan of Nhem. Something mysterious is happening on Nehm: without explanation, from time to time, a woman will mysteriously gain self-awareness. Some instinct or inner knowledge tells them to flee to a certain place, and they cross a desert to reach a small colony of about 400 sentient women living in a ruin on the seacoast. There are also brief interludes from a fourth voice, which is unidentified until late in the novel: Skadi, also known as Skinning Knife. Her segments mostly let readers intimate who is carrying out the bloody murders that seem to have no point. The novel continues in this vein, going from one narrator to the next, although not always in the same order. As in Precious Dragon, these characters and their separate stories do not come together until late in the novel.
Bloodmind pleases most in small moments; in a particularly poignant account, Hunan, recalling the children she had to leave behind when she suddenly gained sentience, says:
My children haunted the bell tower. I didn't see them every day, just sometimes, and usually it was a sign of storms. Perhaps the violent air conjured them up, drew their spirits down from the north. They looked just as they had when I'd escaped: First Joy with his small stern face, Boy-Next-Time's buttoned-up mouth and anxious eyes, Luck-Still-to-Come no more than a little thing. It's likely that the girls were put to death when my going was discovered, but I don't know for sure.
It is one of the most convincing and truly-felt moments of the entire novel.
It is impossible, by the way, to read Bloodmind without thinking of the 1975 movie The Stepford Wives: in the bucolic small town of Stepford, the Men's Association secretly arranges for all their wives to be replaced by mindless, beautiful androids who only exist to serve them, sexually and domestically. The Nhem chapters, describing how the men of Nhem have employed a biological trigger that turns their women into ox-like humans with not enough intelligence for speech, who can only bear children and perform domestic labor, are a close parallel. The Stepford Wives delivers a shattering impact from this horrific premise with a combination of black humor and a buildup of the mystery of what exactly is going on in Stepford. Bloodmind, however, delivers this information via Hunan, who seems pretty inured to the whole situation, and doesn't raise any dramatic tension at all.
So, in spite of a number of impressive aspects of Bloodmind, such as the imagining of a terrible biological weapon, I have to admit I found the novel as a whole disappointing. The voices of Sedra, Hunan, and Skadi mostly did feel like interruptions from other channels and were more of a dragging weight than an impetus to the action. An understanding of the significance of their stories came far too late, leaving me with the feeling that the story might have had more life if it had stuck to one first-person narrative voice and invested more effort into the character of Vali, who never becomes particularly interesting. The reader is told a good bit about her, as far as her past goes, but all her hardships (being past) serve mainly as items for her to mull over as she, for the most part, follows the directions of others. It's a pity, for there is much to like about this book.
Donna Royston lives and writes in Virginia. Her short story "The First Censor's Statement" is online at The Copperfield Review.