It is a long time since the last Inspector Chen novel. So long ago, in fact, that the dust jacket still says that Liz lives in Brighton. I’m not going to speculate on why the book has taken so long to get to market, because I am very grateful that it is here.
When I read Precious Dragon I worried that Williams was getting a little too apocalyptic too early. Writing a series of novels is a bit like a D&D campaign: if you let things escalate too quickly there can be nowhere to go. Precious Dragon ended with a war between Heaven and Hell, with Chen’s friend Mhara becoming Emperor of Heaven, and Zhu Irzh’s mother likely to marry the Emperor of Hell. How could our heroes possibly face any more challenges?
Fortunately Williams is a canny operator. Firstly she knows that the Heaven and Hell referred to above are, in fact, only the Chinese Heaven and Hell. Move our heroes to, say, India, and suddenly they are back at square one again, barring diplomatic intervention. In addition she has introduced the idea of between, a place that is neither Heaven, nor Hell, nor Earth, but somewhere that no one holds sway.
Well, that’s not quite correct. The character on the front of The Shadow Pavilion is Seijin the assassin, who rules between from the building of the book’s title. Seijin is a liminal being. The male and female figures that you can see to either side of the cover are aspects of the assassin’s personality, not separate people. Whether Seijin is actually an hermaphrodite is never made clear, and possibly not relevant in the case of shape-shifting mythological beings, but the ability to manifest as either a man or a woman is clearly a useful character trait if you earn your living by sneaking around and murdering people. Seijin, then, was born on Earth, of parents from Heaven and Hell, and is the ultimate liminal being; the one person whom disgruntled conservatives in Heaven can hope has the power to assassinate Mhara.
Because the book took so long getting to market it is easy to forget that The Shadow Pavilion was written before the Barrack Obama phenomenon hit the world stage. Now it looks eerily prescient, from the death threats against the reforming leader from supposed religious people who think that being “good” has nothing to do with compassion and everything to do with being rich and comfortable, to the sense of foreboding we feel when, towards the end of the book, Mhara exhorts the spirits of Heaven to travel to Earth and try to do Good.
Meanwhile there is a rip-roaring plot to worry about. Badger and Zhu Irzh have been kidnapped by Tiger demons from an Indian Hell, and a Bollywood actress who is more than she seems is causing havoc in Singapore Three. Even without all of the clever commentary, Inspector Chen novels would be perfect page turners. Why they are not selling by the skip load is a mystery to me.
Because the book intersects with my primary academic interest, I should make comment on Seijin, though actually there is not a lot to say. Seijin appears to be a mythical dual-spirit character. The aspects of the assassin’s personality are separate and opposing, in a traditional gender binary. There is no sense that Seijin is in any way gender-confused, and the issue of intersex is never raised. Consequently the book doesn’t have a lot to say about real world gender issues, at least in Western culture.
Seijin is, however, an interesting character. I wondered if Williams had got the idea from an existing myth, but all I could find online was that the word “seijin” means “adult” in Japanese (and is therefore used as a label for types of hentai — Wikipedia says that “seijin” is used to describe pornographic manga and anime aimed at heterosexual men, making it quite different from the gender-ambiguous yaoi, but I don’t entirely trust Wikipedia when it comes to understanding Japanese culture). If anyone knows any more about this I’d be happy to hear from them.
I have one final thing to say: When is The Iron Khan coming out, and please, please, please can we not have to wait almost two years for it?