Recent reading: SNAKE AGENT. Wow, quite a prologue —

Hanging by his heels and twisting slowly in the draught that slipped beneath the crimson door, Detective Inspector Chen tried desperately to attract the demon’s attention. Yet despite his whispered pleas, the demon’s eyes remained tightly shut, and his wet, black lips moved faintly, as if in prayer. Hearing the alchemist’s heels retreating down the passage, Chen tried again, “Tso! Listen to me!”

The demon’s only response was to squeeze his eyes even more tightly closed. Chen sighed. Tso had never liked to confront uncomfortable realities, and had gone to some lengths to avoid them, but now he, too, was dangling by his heels from a hook in the ceiling and – thought Chen, bitterly – the truth of what the demon had done must finally be faced.

“Tso, I know you’ve probably had a bang on the head, but I’m quite well aware you’re still conscious. We have to find a way of getting down,” Chen insisted.

“No use,” the demon whined, without opening his eyes. “There’s no way out of here.”

“Nonsense,” Chen said, more firmly than he felt. The blood was rushing to his head and making him dizzy: the metal walls of the chamber seemed to tilt and spin. Reflected within them, his face was no more than a blurred, unhappy moon. He tried not to think about Inari, but it was hard to keep anxiety at bay. Stop fretting about your wife,” he told himself. The badger will look after Inari; all you have to do is worry about getting down and getting out of here. To the demon, he said, “The alchemist will be back in a little while, and then we’ll really have problems. Now, listen. My rosary’s on the table to your right – can you see it? I want you to try and reach it.”

The demon’s eyes opened at last, dazzling and sudden. Chen stared, blinking, into the hot-coal heart of the demon’s gaze.

“Your rosary?” Tso said, nonplused. “How? My hands are tied.”

“You’ll have to swing over and see if you can grab it with your tongue.”

“But my tongue will get burned!”

“When that nightmare of an alchemist comes back you’ll have a damned sight more to worry about than a sore tongue,” Chen said with barely restrained patience. The demon’s mouth opened and Tso emitted a long, hissing breath that stank of offal. Chen was unable to repress a shudder.

“Oh, very well!” the demon complained. “I’ll try.” He began to swing, dangling like some monstrous piece of bait from the hook in the ceiling. Chen watched, holding his breath, as the demon came within a couple of feet of the table. The long black tongue shot out and flickered over the surface, missing the rosary. Tso tried again, anchoring himself to the table leg with his tongue. The barbed, sensitive tip probed over the surface of the table, flicked the rosary, and recoiled.

“Hurts!” the demon said, indistinctly.

“I’m truly sorry. But if we don’t get out of here …”

Tso tried again, and this time flicked the rosary off the table with all the neatness of a toad catching flies.

“Well done!” Chen enthused. The demon hissed with pain as the rosary seared the end of his tongue, but the barbs held it securely. Swinging back, Tso flicked the rosary in the direction of Chen, who lunged for it with his teeth and missed. The rosary, detaching itself from Tso’s tongue, wrapped around an ornately carved pineapple that decorated the edge of the alchemist’s desk, where it hung, dangling tantalizingly out of reach, just as the alchemist stepped back through the lacquered door, ceremonial machete in hand.

This is the complete prologue from SNAKE AGENT, the first Detective Chen novel by Liz Williams. Liz Williams has written over a dozen books, it turns out, but I hadn’t heard of her until someone here mentioned her some time ago and I decided to try this book. Which was really good! It’s a rather dense urban fantasy that in some ways feels like SF, because it’s set in the future.


Chen is a detective in Singapore Three, the third city of the Singapore franchise, which is currently constructing a sixth city down the coast, if I recall correctly. He works under the auspices of Kuan Yin, the Compassionate and Merciful, She Who Hears the Cries of the World. At the moment, though, he’s not in good graces with the goddess, having recently married a demon wife – hardly the act of an impeccable servant of Heaven.

Chen deals with supernatural crime, as you might imagine, and when the story opens, he is trying to find out what happened to a murdered girl – not so much what happened to kill her, though he does find that out as well, but his focus is more on why her ghost has gone missing rather than making its way to Heaven, and his priority is not so much on the crime that killed her, but on making sure the ghost is sent properly on its way. In the course of this investigation, he partners with a demon employed by Hell’s own police force, Seneschal Zhu Irzh, and searches out nefarious activity both on Earth and in Hell.

This is all a lot of fun. Not that the book is humorous or light; it’s actually rather gritty and quite dense; but the structure of the world and the detailed worldbuilding is so unusual and a great delight. We have big stuff like the bioweb in which girls earn the money to pay their dowries and the Ministry of Epidemics – we get a rather horrifying tour of the Ministry of Epidemics – and the path that departed souls take on their way out of life. Then we have a huge number of little details like the rosary and the use of incense and the badger-teakettle (seriously: a badger-teakettle!).

Though the world is gritty, the writing is quite lyrical. When Chen finally catches up with the lost ghost of the dead girl and sends her to Heaven, the scene is described this way: Chen had a glimpse of a place that made him cry out: a golden sky above glittering, diamond-blossomed trees, and the fragment of shadow that was Pearl Tang running among them until it was lost in the light.

Even Hell, for all its grindingly frustrating bureaucracy and everyday horrors – cloaks made of human skin and so forth – is often described lyrically, as here: The worst thing about the lower levels was not the thin, high voice that sang incessantly through the streets like the whine of a vast mosquito, nor the jets of acrid flame that shot at random from between the stones, but the dust-laden wind that blew in from the distant barrens. Dust stained Inari’s skin and seeped beneath her clothes, matting her hair and blocking her nose. She couldn’t stop sneezing; it was worse than the hay fever to which she’d been prone on Earth.

Actually, Inari is wrong: the dust isn’t the worst thing about the lower levels of Hell. But still, that’s enough to make it clear you wouldn’t want to visit.

So, beautiful writing, an unusual setting, and sympathetic characters – Seneschal Zhu Irzh is likeable, for a demon, not to mention Inari and Sergeant Ma, and of course Detective Inspector Chen is a great protagonist – I can see why Williams has been nominated a couple of times for the Philip K Dick Award. I’m glad one of you drew her to my attention – thanks, whoever you were! – and I’ll be picking up the next Inspector Chen story soon, especially since I found SNAKE AGENT engaging and yet best enjoyed in small doses, easy to put down when I needed to get my own work done.

Now, about that prologue.

I was so unimpressed by the infodump prologue of Anne Bishop’s WRITTEN IN RED, though as you may recall, I enjoyed the story itself very much. The two books are actually very interesting to compare, they are so different. WRITTEN IN RED is catchy and a real page turner; SNAKE AGENT is much more sophisticated and has much deeper worldbuilding, but I wouldn’t exactly call it catchy. And so forth. But, for the moment, let’s stick to SNAKE AGENT’s unusual prologue.

I think a lot of prologues are very infodumpy and quite boring. Others drop the reader into the middle of the action, but, with the action taking place out of context, often fail to catch the reader’s attention. Most prologues deal with events that take place before the real story starts – that’s certainly true of the prologues I’ve occasionally put in my own books.

The prologue in SNAKE AGENT is quite different. For one thing, it’s the antithesis of an infodump: instead, it drops the reader into the middle of the action without explaining anything. I think it works because it is such an intimate scene, and because the details start to build the world right away even without explaining anything. We can immediately tell that Chen is the guy we should care about and that he is in a tight spot.

Also, the prologue deals with events that take place late in the action of the book, rather than before the story properly opens. Chapter one then flicks us away into the backstory that leads up to that alchemist and his machete. We catch up with the prologue on page 313, and by the time we get there we know a whole lot more about Chen and Tso and the alchemist and the world and what’s going on.

This is an unusual technique – this start at the end and then back up to show how we got there. What do you all think of this kind of prologue? Does it remind you of anything?

Here’s one, which I’m sure you will all recognize:

No shit, there I was . . .

We’d been cut up so many ways and so many times we hardly had a skirmish line, and the enemy kept get reinforced. I, like the rest of the outfit, was exhausted and terrified from swords buzzing past my ear and various sorts of sorcery going whoosh over my head, or maybe it was the other way around; and there were dead people moaning and writhing on the ground and wounded people lying still, and that was almost certainly the other way around, but I’m giving it to you as I remember it, though I know my memory sometimes plays tricks on me.

More on that in a second.

First I have to ask you to excuse me for starting in the middle, but that’s more or less where it starts.

That’s DRAGON by Steven Brust, and after that opening scene – which is not presented as a prologue – Brust takes us forward and back in time, in little bursts, with much more time being spent in the backstory that answers the question “How did Vlad get into this situation?” than in moving forward to deal with the climactic endgame that flows out of that situation. That’s not exactly what we see in SNAKE AGENT, but the opening technique definitely seems similar.

A much older book that also pulls something of the same trick is Roger Zelazny’s DOORWAYS IN THE SAND, a story where Zelazny seems to have really enjoyed playing with this technique. Every chapter open with the protagonist, Fred Cassidy, in some weird or dangerous situation. Then we go back and see how he got into that situation, then we see how he gets out of it. Then the next chapter follows the same peculiar path, always out of order, with the most exciting bit first.

I seem to have given my copy away, I suppose the last time I was trying to clear out room on my shelves for new titles. Hmm. Now I would kind of like to re-read it.

Anyway, I will definitely make a note of this interesting and different kind of opening and story structure. I always seem to move straight from front to back, but it might be fun to try to structure a story more from the inside out sometime, just to see how it works.

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1 thought on “Recent reading: SNAKE AGENT. Wow, quite a prologue —”

  1. Reminds me of the way a lot of TV dramas are structured: first scene is hero tied to a chair with menacing figure advancing with instruments of torture; then we segue to “24 hours previously” and the rest of the episode shows us how the hero got into the fix. I guess they use it because it’s effective. I know I’m eager to go find Snake Agent! (Must find out what a badger-tea-kettle is.)

    Gorgeous cover, too.

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