Liz Williams' work is very well regarded in the science fiction field, but - despite a recommendation from Tricia Sullivan herself - my previous experience of it has been... somewhat disappointing, given the lavish praise laid upon Williams' authorial skill.  Following the specifics of Sullivan's recommendation, however, has proven somewhat more of an explanation for the critical acclaim Williams has: Snake Agent, the first of the DI Chen novels, is a brilliant slipstreamy-type novel.

The reason I describe it as "slipstreamy" is because Williams mixes so many different kinds and categories into Snake Agent.  We see technology out of science fiction - literally liquid display screens that can be spread across any surface and biocomputing as an adjunct to the internet - alongside magic and active demons and gods.  All this in the context of a clearly futuristic P. R. China.  Combine this with the noirish feel of the narrative - although it builds up to be something out of the scope of most noir, in terms of conspiracies (stretching literally into the bowels of Hell!) - and the police procedural/whodunnit elements, and "slipstreamy" is simply the easiest, most complete description of the rolling, changing, shifting and never-quite-solidifying genre of Snake Agent.

The characters are, however, a quite different affair.  We have four main figures in Snake Agent, and they are all excellently portrayed, rounded figures.  The first, naturally, is DI Chen himself; a member of the Singapore Three police force, he deals with matters supernatural, and starts the novel by being asked to track down the kidnapped soul of the daughter of an industrialist.  As the plot progresses and grows more complicated, we see Chen really grow into himself - or perhaps into John Constantine, if we're feeling cynical; because it really does feel like Constantine is something of a reference point for Chen, but not in a bad way - rather they share a common heritage and feeling, as well as a world-weariness, but Chen's is leavened by his stronger urge to do good, and his attachment to Inari.
Inari herself is a demon, and Chen's wife - having fled from an arranged marriage in Hell with Chen's help, she's somewhat dependent on him, but the pair love each other; indeed, there is a beauty and power to their relationship and the way it is portrayed that works incredibly well.  Like all our characters, Inari is incredibly human, and an interesting figure; her inability to quite fit in with humanity and her problems attempting to are affectingly portrayed, as is her state of mind.
Zhu Irzh, Seneschal of Hell and a member of the Ministry of Vice (promotion, not eradication, naturally) is working the same case as Chen from the opposite end; again, he's a very human demon, neatly written as having different standards and ideas of duty as a human, but still having them - and following them.  It's an important note, because Zhu Irzh is so important to the narrative and as a character; Williams writes him very well, leaving him eminently believable.
Finally, Sergeant Ma, a human in the Singapore Three PD who barely believes in the supernatural despite the evidence and dislikes it, is a character like a duck out of water; he lets the reader be introduced to some of the concepts of the novel, and whilst not around for a huge amount of it, his naivety and distaste for demons give us a very different picture to Chen of human society and the world, and a necessary counterbalance.

The plot of Snake Agent is a complex one.  The aforementioned kidnapping is only the way into a complex conspiracy by one of the Ministries of Hell, which is also intertwined with attempts by Inari's spurned betrothed to take her back from Chen and Earth.  The personal, criminal and political run together in complex and unusual manners over the course of the novel, with hidden identities, magical responses, and larger scales than we ever expected at the start coming clearer and clearer, and the raising of the stakes gives rise to more and more elements of the plot being revealed and tied into the central elements, until at the end we have everything swept away, not with a deus ex machina, but with a brilliant resolution reminiscent of such - but far better foreshadowed and executed.

In the end, Snake Agent shows why Liz Williams is a much praised author, and DI Chen is a brilliant creation; I'll certainly be following along his journey.  Williams can, finally, welcome me aboard as a fan!
My last foray into Williams' fiction was fraught with problems; Bloodmind, despite being a sequel (a fact I didn't discover until I checked on wikipedia), is a better and more effective standalone novel.  That isn't to say it has no problems (some of them associated with being a sequel to a novel I haven't read, admittedly), by a long stretch.

The most obvious element of this is the characters.  Whilst Vali is presumably the protagonist of Darkland, the novel preceding Bloodmind, most of the major elements of her character are explained (through memory, flashbacks, or just discussion) in Bloodmind; she is portrayed effectively and powerfully as a damaged, wounded person who fights regardless, and wants to be healed and forgiven, perhaps.  The effective way Williams integrates her past into her present is well-done, since it doesn't just rely on cliches like flashbacks but gentle recall of things like scars; but at the same time the slow-reveal that Williams seems to enjoy doesn't in the end work all that brilliantly.  The other side of this is that things that we're presumably told about in Darkland play a huge part in the formation of her character and her responses to other characters, and Williams doesn't tell us enough about these things.  The other characters are all presumably new to this novel, Thorn Eld aside, but all work effectively as if in a standalone; they're very three-dimensional and thoughtful, though Williams' presentation of Hunan's memories as a non-sentient woman are really problematic (they suggest limited sentience, in a way that doesn't fit with what Williams tells us is going on...)

The plot is also somewhat problematic; this isn't a whodunnit so much as a chase novel, but the chase is punctuated by manufactured crisis, contrived plotting, and betrayal.  Indeed, those words really sum up Bloodmind: there's factional play that isn't explained within this novel, which means we don't really get the chance to understand what's going on, and combined with the technomagic of a kind similar, though at the same time very different, to that which appeared in Winterstrike, we really are given the impression of a level of complexity that needs much more contextualisation.  Furthermore, character interactions within the plot are problematic; characters don't stay consistent and chop-and-change their stated (that is, internal-dialogue-given) motivations and suggested courses of actions in deeply problematic, odd ways to such an extent that the book becomes really hard to follow consistently.

All in all, though, the writing style and some interesting concepts - the genetic engineering, the ability to "switch off" sentience - do provide a fascinating backdrop to the novel; Williams integration of Norse mythology into the futuristic setting of Bloodmind is well-done, although a little overstated and too highlighted at times, and the emphasis she places on some of the magitech is really quite odd, especially since it's never explained.  Equally, there's confused implications of FTL travel in the novel, but other things that suggest the precise opposite; consistent worldbuilding isn't one of Williams' strengths, here.

Overall, then, I can't recommend Bloodmind as a stand-alone novel, but I can hardly outright condemn it, since that isn't what it was intended to be; a disappointing read, but whilst Williams isn't blameless, it's hardly her fault alone.
Williams’ novel is a real genre-bender; science fiction (Winterstrike is set on Mars, with hugely futuristic genetic engineering), fantasy (haunt-tech, a ghost-based magic/technology thing) and perhaps even horror too. It’s a reasonably enjoyable novel, but I have to admit, I was left wanting more…

The characters of Winterstrike are well-written, that’s certain. Hestia is a brilliant protagonist and viewpoint-character, strong but knowing her limits; she’s got a definite sense of agency and also an apartness from her surrounding culture that allows her to comment on it, and it’s not an artificial apartness as it might be. Essegui is a very different kind of protagonist; rebelling against her culture and parents, but not really breaking out of the assumptions of that culture; with limited agency and a set of drives that aren’t hers. The problem that is inherent to how Essegui is written is her capabilities – they’re too great for the character, in an unexplained manner; this seems rather strange, really. The other characters are much more subtle than Williams gives immediate credit for; we have appearances of strength held tight – with the occasional, rapidly covered, crack; we have the driven, vengeful characters; and a number of others – but each is an individual and well-written, with motivations and drives that are reasonable and well-controlled.

Winterstrike’s plot is much more messy than the characters. There are a number of plotlines which are never tied up satisfactorily; whilst some elements – the disappearance of Leretui, the role of the Changed – are somewhat dealt with, and the mission Hestia starts the novel with is explained, there are many elements which are never closed, not only leaving the path open to a sequel but actively necessitating it. There’s no satisfaction to finishing this novel, not only because the characters are left unsatisfied, but because it’s only finishing, not ending; and Williams hasn’t remotely covered that fact up. The interaction of the plotlines is hinted at and referenced, and the various possible puppet-masters are brought together at the end… but there are unexplained absences (what happens to the Queen?) and a complete lack of discussion.

The other noteworthy element is the worldbuilding. Whilst neglecting the historical side of this (there is history, and its referred to, but we don’t know what it is; how the world got from its present state to this future one is just ignored, practically), Williams does create a beautiful, and interesting, world in Winterstrike. The Martian matriarchies with the outcast genetically modified males (in various semi-mythological forms) are well-portrayed and simply done, without comment; and the broad-brush architecture gives us an idea of the visuals without too strictly defining the limits of the imagination. Similarly, the Earth is painted in vague detail; there is clearly more there, but there’s no reason for the characters to know it – so Williams won’t tell us; and the integration of haunt-tech in Winterstrike is simple and effective into people’s lives.

Overall, then, if Williams had written a longer (or more cleanly ended, even!) novel, Winterstrike would be fantastic; as it is, it’s too unended and feels unfinished in a horrible way, leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth. I enjoyed it, up to the end… but the end really did put me off Williams’ writing, because it wasn’t an end, and it obviously wasn’t intended to be.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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