1994’s Bride of the Rat God is the first book in Barbara Hambly’s Bride of the Rat God series.
Widowed during the Great War and shunned by her surviving relatives for the unforgivable sin of marrying a Jew, Norah is grateful to her movie-star sister-in-law Chrysanda Flamande for rescuing Norah from impoverished servitude in the UK. Norah’s role is to be the responsible person while her sister-in-law enjoys a flurry of cocaine, booze, wild parties, and super-long work days that would inspire coal miners to go on strike. Not only is Chrysanda nicer than Norah’s old boss, but Hollywood’s climate is nicer than Britain’s.
Shame about the curse.
The first hint of a problem is when Chrysanda’s stunt double Keith Pelletier is violently murdered. The obvious explanation is that Pelletier was hacked to pieces by Charlie Sandringham, a charming star last seen picking up Pelletier at a party. This is not the answer the studio wants, because they remember how the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal made Arbuckle’s movies unsellable and that at least was a heterosexual sex and death scandal.
What’s really going on: it’s the necklace.
Chrysanda is an avid collector of Chinese artifacts. When her lover, Frank Brown, gives her a rare and precious necklace looted from the Forbidden City, she accepts it with glee and wears it frequently. What she doesn’t know is that the necklace is cursed and anyone who wears it is doomed.
The necklace is a magical artifact that broadcasts “I am destined to become the bride of a Manchurian rat god.” Although “demon” may be a better term than “god” and “bride” might be more accurately called “human sacrifice.”
The unfortunate Pelletier was the first victim of the necklace, having worn it when he performed stunts in Chrysanda’s place. Now it is Chrysanda’s turn to die.
Or perhaps not? Soon after the first murder, a mysterious elderly Chinese man first tries to warn Chrysanda, then inveigles his way into her household as a gardener. He is Shang Ko, also known as Liang Hao, the Shining Crane. Shang Ko is a wizard and he knows exactly what is going on. He has faced the demon before. However … the rat god easily defeated the old man the last time they met. Shang Ko does not expect this encounter to go any better.
Yet another reminder that it is a bad idea to loot ancient artifacts of unknown provenance. They almost invariably turn out to be cursed or at least extremely dangerous to handle. One would think given the virtual certainty that death will soon follow the acquisition of such trinkets that people would stop collecting them , but that does not seem to be the case. At least in stories.
“An artifact of pure evil used by a Chinese cult to feed unfortunate women to a demon, in order to prop up their no doubt degenerate Emperor” is a background detail that has not aged especially well, so it’s just as well that the cult is not actually Chinese. However, it is not clear that making the cult Manchurian rather than Han Chinese is a tremendous improvement, although I can see why it appeals to Shang Ko, who is very clear that he considers the Qing Dynasty a nest of barbaric foreigner invaders.
A detail that’s not entirely clear is why he would care, particularly, if an American actress was eaten by the rat god or why he would risk his life in what he suspects is a futile quest to save one. After all, in the grand scheme of things, most Americans (Chinese-Americans aside) are even less Chinese than Manchurians. It’s important he does care, because had he not provided an explanation, odds are Chrysanda and a number of her friends would have died without ever connecting the dots.
I’d say the problematic elements were archaic but I remember equally eyebrow-raising novels from the same era (Rising Sun , for example). Otherwise, this was a reasonably quick moving historical fantasy that delivered glimpses of old time Hollywood, dead bodies, and brushes with death at a pleasing pace. It’s not my thing but if it is yours, Bride of the Rat God is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: In settings featuring cursed artifacts, the corollary would have to be that major museums would be dragging bodies out of their facilities every morning, as a thousand and one cursed artifacts claim their toll. Hmmm.