Saturday, July 11, 2009

Libros del Awesome : The Devil Wives of Li Fong by E. Hoffmann Price

Devil Wives is another bargain-bin book I picked up a while back, and it shows on the scan I did. This first-edition paperback probably started its life in the back pocket of some hippie's cords and who knows what its history could be from there, it looks like a man was slapped silly with it. Well, now it will sit on my shelf where it will add to the mightiness of my collection.

I'm a Sinophile so this was almost impossible to pass up. I say "almost" because there is plenty of bad Chinese fantasy, or chinoiserie if you prefer, out there. I figure there are two kinds of what I'll just call chino for short: the first kind, the bad kind, thinks of Chinese culture the way I did when I was fourteen. This almost complete lack of understanding is probably because the author's exposure to same is usually only through New-Age bookstores. You could imagine it set to a "ching-chong, ping-pong" soundtrack written and performed by Enya, with lots of posing and romance and people being all Eastern and cool and meditating all the time and shit. You know this when you see it because it usually has way-too-flowery language, especially in the title, which is often something like "Clouds and Rain" or "something something Dragon something Jade". Think James Clavell, or any of Eric van Lustbader's ninja books (which I inhaled when I was a teenager).

What's funny about this style of chino is that it's a lot like the fiction that actually comes out in Chinese, which I've been lucky enough to grab an English translation or two of. Think of the sappy Canto-pop in all those cool Hong Kong action movies you watched in the 90s, that's what I'm talking about.

The second type of chino is usually much better, as it tries to get more gritty and generally has more humor in it. There also tends to be lots of sex for some reason. Barry Hughart's books come to mind as examples, and now I discovered Devil Wives. The characters are more real and their foreignness is less of a put-on and more who they are.

DW, like most chino, has some quirks unique to this subgenre of fantasy. It attempts to convey the alienness of Eastern culture by obsessing a lot over odd manners and odd modes of speech, things like characters saying "I bow three times", things like that. It's mostly a device trying to convey an image of Chinese culture more than the actual - which the authors usually get around by setting their books in a fictional China or even a mythical Pan-Asia that incorporates everything. Since most fantasy novels are essentially set in a Western culture the difference is huge for someone picking up the book who doesn't know how to use chopsticks let alone what the Confucian doctrine of filial piety is. But good authors, like Price, or Hughart, bring you into the world without throwing too many crazy terms out at you too fast, maybe even defining some without being boring (BTW, Charles Saunder's Imaro is also great at this, I know zip about African culture and thought it was great and not confusing at all). I will say it helps to know something about the culture, especially for DW, as a lot of the stuff in here strikes me as being mostly correct.

The basic plot outline is this - Li Fong, a lowly pharmacist's apprentice, sometime in "the distant past" of China, when magic was real, takes a day off to go pay homage to his ancestors and runs into two beautiful women, who set designs on him to be their husband. Turns out they're snake-women, people who were once human, but were reincarnated as snakes and through a lot of mystical yadda-yadda turn back into people. But the transformation is tenuous and they need to make themselves more human. Naturally, they need husbands, since that's the natural role of a woman, yin and yang and all that. They decide to share Li Fong since they're sworn sisters and couldn't bear to be apart.

Yeah, you can count on me to post reviews of the politically-incorrect stuff. But, to me, that's what makes it good. No one ever used the term "politically correct" as a compliment.

Anyway, so inside of a few months Li Fong finds himself the inheritor of a dilapidated estate with a buried treasure on it and two hot women who know badass kung-fu and magic. Understandably Li Fong is both nonplussed and enjoying the hell out of himself at the same time. One of the things I liked about this book is that, though at the beginning Li Fong is set up as sort of a dandy and a fool, instead of him constantly messing up and his women having to save him, they instead support him. Sure, sometimes they will steer him towards the right decision. But the character has some real growth throughout the book. I personally hate the hapless loser character and that goes double when he's the main character surrounded by women (Robert Jordan, I'm looking at you). So this was a nice twist I hadn't expected.

Of course, things can't go right all the time or this wouldn't be much of a book. Soon the trio have a couple of Taoist wizards on their trail, looking for their treasure. They flee to another town to hide out, but the wizards find them and then enlist the local Buddhist monastery's abbot to help them. The Buddhist, of course, is more concerned with making converts and preventing what he sees as an oncoming disaster - since the legend about snake-women is that they're real nice until they have your kid. Then they kill you and the kid and drink the blood so they can live for another thousand years. This is not so much a deliberate evil act, more like their snake-nature reasserting itself, which is why the abbot is not put off by how decent Li Fong's wives are - the practice they set up in the town of Soochow heals many people and of course charges almost nothing to poor people, all that kind of stuff. The remainder of the book is Li Fong and his wives dealing with their opposing trio of villains and thank God, it all ends with a fiery explosion.

There was a lot to like about this book. Setting aside the Chinese stuff, if it had been set in your basic swords 'n sorcery setting it wouldn't lose much. It has a good blend of intrigue - not so much or so many characters that it gets confusing - and active plot, like when the abbot captures one of the wives. No character is really worthless and all of them grow some as people, so that's good. I did have a couple of problems with it, though.

Number one, which is as usual with me, I wished there had been more kung-fu in the book. Price drops some hints of Li Fong getting into awesome fights - right at the beginning of the book he has Li Fong practicing moves with a bowstring (!) - but what fighting there is, is sporadic and doesn't involve a lot of cool kung-fu on Li Fong's part. Price, I think, didn't know much about it, because it's mostly something his First Wife will bust out occasionally, and then he usually only describes it as "a kung fu move" that puts someone on their ass. Fortunately this doesn't come off as bad as I make it seem, but still. Fricking bowstring. I'm a sucker for ad-hoc or crazy kung-fu weapons (my personal favorite - the umbrella).

Number two is that Price's bete noire seems to be people who have strong beliefs in just about anything. I say this because he tends to belabor the point about how the abbot is terrible because he believes in Buddha and is trying to do good. The Taoists, who are mostly interested in the women for their money, are even held up as being not as bad as this guy, because at least - they have no strong convictions. I swear. Once or twice the abbot is referred to as a "superstitious old fool", which I find funny in a book about SNAKES WHO TURN INTO WOMEN, HEALING POTIONS, GHOSTS AND MAGIC SPELLS.

I will say that there are some hooks to this way of thinking in Chinese philosophy, but really it's the difference between Panda Express and a pushcart vendor in Shanghai. So I don't really consider that an excuse. Fortunately, this stuff is almost nowhere to be found in the beginning of the book, and by the time you get to it Price manages to keep a lid on it most of the time, which is a credit to him as a writer, as I can tell from his stridency that he could have gone on and on and ruined the book. The world could use more professionalism of this sort today.

What's funny about this book is that I had never heard of this guy.When I read his author bio at the back, I thought it was the usual joke bio crap for a pseudonymous author, the stuff that is supposed to be funny but is actually "wry", that is, not actually funny except to yourself and other a-holes. It didn't really bug me until I got to the end. Here, you read it:

E. Hoffman Price (1898-present) soldiered in the Philippines and France during World War I ...
During the past sixteen years, Price has been known in San Francisco's Chinatown as Tao Fa, the dharma name conferred by Venerable Yen Pei of Singapore, and he is mentioned in prayers every new moon and full moon in two Taoist-Buddhist temples. As a gourmet, he cooks shark fin soup, sautees beche-de-mer with black mushrooms, and steams "tea-smoked" duck. He declares that in addition to silk, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass, beautiful women were invented in China. Doubters are invited to meet him at dawn, on horse or afoot, with sword or pistol.
I know, right? I was going along with it until that last paragraph. And then I was like "eff you" at the book. It's one thing to tell me this book was written by a guy who was 81 at the time, it's another to lay this "Tao Fa" jazz on me and expect me to think it's awesome. Reminds me of a guy I used to know ...

Anyway, I generally hate author bios like crazy, since I hate that arch, laughing-up-your-sleeve crap attitude that too many people who are clever with words get into. This one really took the cake for me, though. I could go on and on regarding my attitude about this. I'll leave it though, because I went and googled this guy's name to find out who he really was.

What's funny is, all that business is true. He was a real guy, the only contemporary author to ever meet Robert E. Howard alive, and the only guy to show up on Lovecraft's doorstep with a six-pack of beer wanting to party. Well, sue me for not being a "Howard scholar", apparently this guy was so damn famous he got his own acronym (now when I read The Cimmerian I know who EHP is!). What's a shame is that his story seems to be mostly lost, all I found was a book of people who wrote short essays about him that had a print run of about five copies, there's barely anything in his wiki bio.

I sat and thought a long while about how I read a man's actual bio and didn't believe it because it was too insane.

All I have to say about him is, if what he put in there is true, then I'll let the crap about "pistols at dawn" go, even though he should have known better. Everyone knows only a cad invites challenges to a duel.


  1. Please post more book reviews more frequently. They're the most enjoyable thing I've read recently, and I read professionally. -Beth

  2. Nice review. EHP, pretty awesome. You can scare up his "Chino" stuff pretty cheap but the collection he did for Arkham House in '67 will run you about a hundy. There is a mythos writer who lives in Phoenix that knew Lumley, Campbell, Price. Next time I see him I'll see if I can scare up a good EHP story.