The problem with most supernatural mysteries isn’t that they aren’t mysteries. It’s vampire politics.
As overlapping subgenres of fantasy, what booksellers classify as supernatural mysteries, urban fantasies, or paranormal romances are generally less demanding on readers and writers than other titles found on the science-fiction and fantasy shelves. There are only two qualifiers for these categories, a contemporary setting and the revelation of a supernatural presence within it. With archetypes of vampires, witches, and werewolves already embedded in the public consciousness through television and film, there’s little imagination required on the part of the author. Even local color and unique occult nomenclature are optional.
In series like these, recurring characters are the presumed appeal. Unlike more traditional fantasy novels that delve into worlds secreted within our own, a thoroughly imagined hidden history or carefully developed supernatural ecosystem isn’t a necessary component. World-building is dealt with book by book, and troublesome details are obfuscated. Vampire politics, always hidden from human eyes and never discussed in the presence of the protagonists, is a prime example. It’s a concept that authors don’t often explore in depth because they never contemplated what a centuries-long battle of ideologies between monsters might look like. Rather than expose the undeveloped framework of their fictional universe, the characters just refuse to talk about it.
Which is why after Snake Agent, Liz William’s introductory Detective Inspector Chen novel, The Demon and the City is such a disappointment. Already an accomplished science fiction author, Williams created a near-future world in Snake Agent where the gods of Chinese mythology existed alongside technologies like neural-cloud computing and disposable gel-based viewscreens. The plot focused on the machinations of rival houses in Hell and how their plans intersected with a murder in the city of Singapore Three. Unlike many other genre-bending detective stories, not only was there a mystery, but the motivations of the humans on Earth, the demons in Hell, and the gods in Heaven made sense and their extraordinary powers had defined limits.
As a follow-up novel, The Demon and the City muddles that delicately imagined balance. By adding in creatures from a vaguely Hindu mythology and a barely-sketched portrait of a fabled Chinese heaven, Williams creates her own vampire politics problem. In contrast to the detailed depiction of Hell and its petty but deadly competitive social ladders in Snake Agent, the significant conflict in the sequel is explained away as beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. And rather than explore the ramifications of multiple heavens and hells co-existing in one world , the stubbornly silent Chinese celestials simply note that there are “jurisdiction problems” between the afterlives of different religions.
It’s frustrating to see Williams’ world transformed from a consistent supernatural mythology to a contradictory jumble of religious powers and principalities, and the story itself doesn’t fare well in the environment. The plot doesn’t begin for 150 pages, and with the exception of the demon Zhu Irzh (oddly, never described as having the mantis head he had in the previous book), the other protagonists of the series barely make an appearance. Detective Chen doesn’t arrive back from vacation until late in the book and disappears before the epilogue. The closest thing to a main character is a young woman who gets caught up in a conspiracy to invade Heaven, and she ends an embarrassing number of chapters falling unconscious.
While certainly ambitious, The Demon and the City is yet another supernatural mystery felled by creature creep and the bland nature of vampire politics. After reading Snake Agent, I had hoped that Williams would be able to overcome the common hurdles of the genre. Unfortunately, they appear to be endemic, a consistent stumbling point for even the thoughtful and experienced fantasy writer.