To a casual reader, Liz Williams’s Detective Inspector Chen novels might seem light fare, a combination mystery fantasy multi-volume alternative history series, with—as a bonus!—extremely limber tigress demons thrown in. And indeed, casual readers may well read the books that way: both The Shadow Pavilion (2009) and The Iron Khan (2010) have romping good plots that give readers plenty of ride for their money. Those who are interested in more than a casual read, however, will find that Williams’s intricate plotlines also deal with intricate issues, and that common threads link the two novels.
Both novels employ Williams’s by-now rather large cast—Chen and his demon wife Inari; Inari’s familiar and guardian (and sometime teapot) Badger; Chen’s erstwhile sidekick and also demon, Zhu Irzh, shortly due to marry Jhai, one of those tigress demons (from a different—and rival—hell to Zhu Irzh’s hell); Mhara, former prince in hiding, now Emperor of Heaven, and his ghost-consort, Robin—in multiple storylines deftly woven together into a satisfactory and a more or less unified whole (more unified in The Iron Khan, less in The Shadow Pavilion).
In The Shadow Pavilion, Lord Lady Seijin, a dual-souled (one soul is male, the other female) immortal assassin, has been hired to assassinate Mhara, the new Emperor of Heaven. Having taken the throne, Mhara at once begins making changes. Some of Mhara’s subjects welcome these changes. Others do not. The former Emperor, Mhara’s father (whom Mhara has deposed) ruled that all the heavenly beings should remain in Heaven. Now, Mhara declares, Heavenly beings are to return to their formerly ordained purpose: service to Earth. Further, the former Emperor held the Command of Belief: whatever the Emperor believed, everyone else had to believe it as well. Mhara changes this ruling.
There was a moment of silence, and then an uproar, just as Mhara had expected there to be. Inwardly he sighed. . . . One would think that they’d be grateful to have been freed from this epistemic shackle. But Mhara knew, only too well, that people don’t necessarily want freedom of thought. What they wanted was certainty…. (p. 96)
As the novel continues, Mhara’s determination to implement changes, and his determining principle, that change is necessary and can be good, is directly linked to the assassination attempts against him.
This theme—both that change can be good, and that it will be resisted, often violently—is the common thread running through both novels. With such a topic, the slide into cliché would be easy: simple villains opposing good, simple heroes charging the barricades. Williams resists that lure, writing situations to demonstrate that change in itself is neither good nor bad. This she does by showing the bad side of change—those who wreak havoc, crashing carelessly through the world, changing without understanding the effect of their actions—as well as its constructive power: the increasingly better job Chen and his colleagues are able to do because their various talents (his as a human, Zhu Irzh’s as a demon, another character’s as a demon hunter, Badger with his skills) complement one another; how Mhara’s reforms begin to mend the broken world. A minor character in The Iron Khan is Rodney Foyle, the ghost of a British spy sent out to China. Though Foyle maintains his loyalty to “Queen and Country and all that” (p. 58) he has also changed, constructively. Because he can see clearly, he can see past how his culture has told him to view Zhu Irzh (demon, Asian, therefore enemy) to Zhu Irzh’s actual character. Since without Foyle’s help, Zhu Irzh and Jhai would have made little headway in their quest to defeat the Iron Khan—it is his knowledge about local magic and lore that turns out to be essential—Rodney Foyle’s ability to embrace the right sort of change is key.
Williams gives us this theme less clearly, however, in The Shadow Pavilion than she does in The Iron Khan.
In The Shadow Pavilion, Williams overloads our plate with multiple intertwining subplots, all of them interesting, but in combination overwhelming. Lord Lady Seijin, for instance, with his/her dual soul, would have sufficed for a single book on his/her own. Possessing the soul of a hero, he/she has been warped into a kind of holy serial killer due to an unfortunate encounter with overwhelming violence in his/her youth, when the Iron Khan swept down on his/her settlement. Because Lord Lady Seijin is relegated to a subplot, the implications of his/her violent origins, as well as his/her ability to corral the souls of his/her slaughtered victims, are never developed, though it should be noted that he/she represents one of the destructive aspects of change. We’re also left wanting to know more about the question of Seijin’s dual-gendered soul—how did that happen? It is not, apparently, the result of his/her violent origin, since we’re told Seijin had the dual soul before the encounter—but how, then? Again, because his subplot is shorted, we do not find out.
The same goes, sadly, for the other subplots in this book. In the opening sequence, we have a thoughtless scriptwriter who has summoned up a violent tigress demon to serve as the leading lady in his movies because he and his agent wanted someone they could push around—real women are too much work (boy, do they get a shock). Another subplot concerns relatives of this tigress demon, who capture Zhu Irzh and Badger in the midst of a police operation and carry them off to a separate hell to suffer (not very intense) torments, which they must join forces to escape. While these subplots have interesting points to make about male and female relationships, and the different attitudes of differing cultures (thus, Krishna versus Kali and their different afterlives), they tend to distract from what seems to be the main plot line in The Shadow Pavilion—the question of change.
In The Iron Khan, in contrast, every plot movement from the opening pages turns on change. Indeed, we begin to see, reading this text, how throughout the series every relationship has turned on changes in social and spiritual attitudes, which have made possible bonds which were previously forbidden: Lieutenant Chen’s with the demon Inari; Zhu Irzh marrying an unsuitable princess from a rival hell; Mhara, married to a human. There is, further, the matter of Inari’s pregnancy—her child, still unborn at the end of The Iron Khan, but speaking up and taking charge at key moments, is the reincarnation of Lord Lady Seijin, who was the enemy of Heaven throughout the previous novel; the enemy, also, of Inari and Chen. Not only does this suggest a major change for Seijin—that the villain can change—but consider what it says about Chen and Inari: their enemy will be their child, whom they will raise up and love. Is this not the definition of true change?
The more unified plot of The Iron Khan also deals with the problem of change. In the opening pages, The Book of Heaven decides—or perhaps someone has told it to decide—that Mhara has erred in changing the world as he does. The Book of Heaven decides to rewrite history so that Mhara cannot make these changes. (Alternative history indeed!) The Book of Heaven cannot rewrite itself; however, if it can persuade certain warriors of its cause then time will be rewritten (a time-traveling city and magic spells are also involved). This is all very well done—Williams keeps the pages turning—and very disturbing, as those opposed to Mhara begin to succeed, and the Book begins to cause changes in the world. For it is not that our heroes are so virtuous (well, all right, Inari is quite sweet)—since the most part they are not. Jhai tosses off remarks designed to make us wince; Zhu Irzh can be clueless; the badger is too contented with his slavery for my taste. Williams’s heroes are not perfect.
On the other hand, the world that replaces the world they have fought to bring about is dismaying. Williams’s point, made when the screenwriter in The Shadow Pavilion summons up a tiger demon to be his leading lady because real women are just too much trouble, is made more clearly here, as the Iron Khan turns Zhu Irzh into a mindless puppet warrior in a wide army of similar puppet warriors riding out to slaughter. This echoes an earlier scene, where Inari and her bodyguard find Mhara’s mother, the exiled Empress of Heaven, surrounded by servant girls, who have bound feet, huge dark eyes, and neither mouths and ears. “The mouthless drones who served the superrich. . . .had no proper sentience. . . .could not hear, and could not speak” (p. 63). It also foreshadows a later scene, in which the Iron Khan tries to bring the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang to life.
Confusing humans with objects brings about change of the sort we do not want; seeing what is, clearly, and acting accordingly, brings about change of the useful sort: if I had to state the theme linking Williams’s books in simple words, I suppose those would do.
At the end of The Iron Khan, Inari’s child, forecast to bring some major change to Heaven and Earth and all the several Hells, is about to be born. Considering who the child was and what he/she has been up to, even before birth, I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Kelly Jennings teaches writing and English in Northwest Arkansas. She is an assistant editor at Crossed Genres.