Book Review: The Devil Wives of Li Fong, by E. Hoffman Price
Sometimes, a title just jumps out at you.
Cover like that, I just had to pick it up.
E. Hoffman Price (1898-1988) was a heck of a guy– he was a contemporary of Howard and Lovecraft, cranking out hundreds of short stories for the pulps. The funny thing is, Price is the sort of guy who would’ve made a great pulp hero himself. He was a West Point graduate who served in WWI– and on top of that, he was a champion fencer, boxer, and marksman. Like any proper pulp explorer, Price had a real sense of adventure and curiosity– things that both come out in The Devil Wives of Li Fong.
The Devil Wives of Li Fong is fantasy– more specifically, it’s Chinese fantasy, set at some point centuries ago. There is a passing mention of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, which would put it at least sometime past the fall of the Han dynasty … which is something I only really know about from playing Dynasty Warriors. But I digress. The important part is, this novel comes from a place of genuine respect and knowledge about Chinese culture and history– it’d be easy for a lesser author to write stuff that comes off as hackneyed and racist, but Price really knows his stuff. This is all reflected in the book’s details about various foods and festivals– as well as Chinese religions such as Taoism and Buddhism. Many characters repeatedly refer to the I Ching: The Book of Change, a book of Chinese divination. Kind of like the Chinese equivalent to a Tarot deck (even though the Book of Change was invented centuries beforehand).
The Devil Wives of Li Fong is about, well, a poor herbalist’s apprentice named Li Fong, and the two beautiful women he falls in with. Technically, that title is a little innacurate. Li Fong only has one wife, Mei Ling, and takes her sister, Meilan, on as a concubine. Though both sisters are snake-devil-women in human form, so there’s that.
While they’re snake demons, Mei Ling and Meilan aren’t evil or malicious. They just want to become fully human. To do so, they decide they need to attach themselves to a human man, and … well, wouldn’t you know, Li Fong fits the bill. Honestly, if the book wasn’t published in 1978, I would’ve thought Price watched too much harem anime.
Li Fong’s marital (or extramarital, in the case of Meilan) bliss doesn’t last for long, as soon they have to deal with a pair of greedy and corrupt Taoist wizards, as well as an overzealous Buddhist abbot who wants to expose the snake-devil-ladies for what they are. Flashy magic battles and such ensue.
The Devil Wives of Li Fong isn’t a perfect book– to be honest, the plot is a little meandering, as the various antagonists of the novel try (and fail) to extort and/or banish the snake-ladies over and over again. It’s kind of episodic, but with most of the episodes retreading the same ground without really blossoming into something crazier. Personally, I would’ve liked it if the book had more kung fu, but I can say that about nearly every book I’ve ever read. Despite these little complaints, Price’s writing is still light and clever enough that it still remains an entertaining read.
The Chinese fantasy setting reminded me of Hughart’s Bridge of Birds. Price doesn’t reach Hughart’s levels of hilarity or melancholy … but that’s alright, since that’s a really high bar to set. Seriously, Hughart’s pushing Pratchett level. Early Pratchett, at least.
In any case, mythic China is a setting that’s ripe for exploration … that not many writers seem to do. That Price was doing such a thing back in 1978 is even more impressive. All and all, I enjoyed The Devil Wives of Li Fong, and would easily recommend it to anybody in the mood for a fun and fluffy bit of adventure that’s set somewhere other than Ye Olde Tolkien-Ripoff Fantasyland.
And as a bonus, I’ve got a new pulp author to read up on, which is always fun.