E. Hoffman Price’s 1979 The Devil Wives of Li Fong is a fantasy set in the China of “long and long ago, before the foreign devils came.”
Devout Buddhist monk Shih Sheng Kang’s efforts to attend to the spiritual needs of the forgotten departed have an unintended effect: two great serpent women, Mei Ling and Meilan, who were lurking unseen nearby, transform into human women. The effect of this alteration works its own transformation on the terrified monk, who promptly drops dead.
It is a tragic beginning for what Mei Ling and Meilan hope will be long, happy lives as human women. The monk is beyond saving, so the women bury their benefactor and set out in search of a husband.
Impoverished apprentice Li Fong’s life is fated to take a very unexpected turn.
Li Fong hoped to pass the Imperial exams and work his way up to lofty status. Instead, tragedy and poverty have forced him to accept his current lowly position. However, his employer does permit Li Fong the very occasional day off. Thanks to that luxury and the guidance of the I Ching, Li Fong’s path crosses that of Mei Ling and Meilan.
That such a well-born and wealthy woman as Mei Ling would set her cap for Li Fong seems quite improbable. However, guided by her arcane knowledge, that is precisely what Mei Ling does. In very short order, the astonished Li Fong is married to Mei Ling, with her supposed servant Meilan as junior wife. To sweeten the deal, the pair have in their possession a large vessel full of curiously antique coins. Two beautiful wives and a fortune: what more could a man want?
To begin with, it would have been nice had the pair of former snake ladies been more subtle about using their old silver. The household manages to fend off the burglar who comes calling, but the greedy Taoist monk the would-be criminal consulted is another matter. Even a hasty relocation from Kwangchow to Soochow will not shake Chang Lu from the trail of the Li Fong household.
Li Fong and his wives have enough time to establish Li Fong as a respected pharmacist in Soochow before Chang Lu arrives, eager to find some way to part the trio from their treasure trove. Chang Lu is a determined man; repeated failure cannot deter him. It only spurs him to redoubled efforts.
Chang Lu will never get his hands on the treasure1. He will, however, manage to make mischief for the trio. Chang Lu draws the attention of the local Buddhist abbot to Mei Ling and Meilan; the cunning Lord Abbot’s blinkered but sincere piety makes him a far greater danger than Chang Lu. Chang Lu also sets in motion events that will reveal to Li Fong precisely who, or rather what, Li Fong has married, a revelation for which Li Fong is no better prepared than was the unfortunate monk who transformed the snake ladies.
The original cover is by Rowena. It is both an accurate depiction of a happening in the book and a (somewhat misleading) spoiler.
How horny for Asian women was E. Hoffman Price? Super horny. Super-duper. Enough that it made it into his Wikipedia article. The discerning reader does not need to consult the article (which although not very well written does suggest the author’s colourful history) because the author makes it very, very clear his idea of heaven is an endless supply of beautiful, submissive Chinese women, ideally equipped with big pots of silver. That aspect of the book is handled with all the delicacy of a sweaty fan who wants to tell you far too much about his Waifu Body Pillow2.
Price also seems to have had a thing for supernatural entities who fall in love with mortal men, because he re-used that detail in 1982’s The Jade Enchantress.
Which I also own. If you’d like a review, options exist.
On rereading this book after an interval of forty years, I discovered that I had completely misremembered vast swaths of the plot. For example, it’s not really accurate to call Chang Lu a sorcerer: he’s a skilled but corrupt Taoist monk. I thought Li Fong was in on his wives’ secret much earlier than he actually was and that his reaction to it was more sedate than collapsing into a swoon barely distinguishable from death. Most important, I completely forgot that Chang Lu never rises above being a pest and that the real menace is the perfectly sincere, extremely devout Lord Abbot, whose determination to force people onto the path to enlightenment results in a large number of dead bodies.
Speaking of sincerity — Mei Ling and Meilan aren’t playing some sort of monstrous long con. They really do want to give up being powerful monsters for lives as dutiful wives. Older sister Mei Ling is better at shedding bad habits than Meilan3 but they share the same goal.
One cannot help but notice that the only reason Li Fong is not even more overshadowed by his far more powerful wives is because Mei Ling and Meilan are doing their best to pass as genuine human women. Casually transforming into giant snake women or summoning fire-breathing dragons to handle their foes would give the game away. Points to the author for not making the pair helpless swooning maidens4.
Readers could be forgiven for believing that this novel was a product of the 1930s or 1940s, rather than the late 1970s. This is because E. Hoffman Price was a product of the pulp era. Having found his note, he was reluctant to learn new ones. He continued producing orientalist fantasies5 that would have been at home in Depression-era Weird Tales.
I am as astonished as you to discover that The Devil Wives of Li Fong is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). I did not find it at Book Depository.
1: Chang Lu, even if his burglary had succeeded, wouldn’t have gained the whole treasure because the polyamorous trio spent a lot of it setting up the pharmacy and their new home.
2: If you don’t know what a Waifu Body Pillow is, treasure your ignorance. BTW, since it’s almost certain someone will want to correct me on this point: I am aware that the people who buy Waifu Body Pillows fetishize Japanese women, not Chinese, and that China and Japan are different nations.
3: In Meilan’s defense, if she, Mei Ling, and Li Fong had simply chopped up Chang Lu and the burglar as Meilan suggested, a lot of trouble and many deaths could have been avoided. Sometimes the cheerful sociopath is right.
4: Swoon-prone Li Fong does eventually come to terms with the nature of his wives.
5: Price also wrote science fiction but all I remember about his 1980 Operation Misfit was that it was dreadful enough for me to stop buying his novels.