Given the critical and commercial success of Eliot Pattison's Edgar-winning debut novel, The Skull Mantra, which painstakingly limned contemporary Tibet's harsh beauty and defiant fatalism through the stoic perspective of Shan Tao Yun, a Chinese bureaucrat imprisoned in a Himalayan labor camp, it's no wonder the author's second novel returns to this hauntingly scarred country. But Water Touching Stone also widens the author's geographical and social scope. Shan must find a killer who is stalking orphan boys in the high mountains and deserts of the Xianjiang Autonomous Region.
Gendun, the senior lama at the monastery that has given Shan sanctuary, announces to his student, "'You are needed in the north. A woman named Lau has been killed. A teacher. And a lama is missing.'" Though reluctant to leave the gentle presence of the monks who are balm to his crippled soul, Shan realizes he has no choice:
Gendun had told him the one essential truth of the event; for the lamas everything else would be mere rumor. What they had meant was that this lama and the dead woman with a Chinese name were vital to them, and it was for Shan to discover the other truths surrounding the killing and translate them for the lamas' world.
It turns out that Lau had taken upon herself the care of the zheli, a group of orphaned children from all corners of Xianjiang, and strove to help the children retain a sense of native identity in the face of the Poverty Eradication Scheme, which is Beijing-speak for the destruction of the herding clans and the transformation of the western steppes into a region of exploitable resources. Shan wonders whether officials from the People's Brigade (perhaps the "Jade Bitch," Prosecutor Xu Li), or the feared secret police "knobs" from Public Security decided to put a stop to her subversive activities. But when the children from the zheli begin dying amid horrific tales of the "demon" that came for them, bleak politics must grapple with darker imaginings.
The novel sports a practically Dickensian cast of characters, which might overwhelm the narrative by sheer numbers, yet Pattison manages to add depth to even the most minor of characters, and at the moments when the troupe threatens to become completely unwieldy, he deftly redeems the situation with moments of quiet poetry:
On they went, three small men in the vastness of the changtang, the wind sweeping the grass in long waves around them, the snow-capped peaks shimmering in the brilliant light of dawn. As they appeared over a small knoll they surprised a herd of antelope, which fled across the long plain. Except one, a small animal with a broken horn, which stared as if it recognized them, then ran beside them, alone, until they reached the road. --Kelly Flynn
From Publishers Weekly
Few mystery sequels have been awaited with as much anticipation as this one, and in many ways this is a worthy successor to Pattison's first novel, the Edgar- winning The Skull Mantra (1999); it too is full of reverence for the beleaguered people of Tibet, especially its tortured and imprisoned Buddhist monks. "I know that of all the world I have seen, the lamas are the best part of it," says Shan Tao Yun, a former high-ranking police investigator from Beijing who because he looked too deeply into some financial scandal was disgraced and imprisoned in a Tibetan gulag, where his life and his soul were saved by the monks who were his fellow prisoners. Released without official consent after his investigations into a murder exposed Chinese corruption, Shan has been living quietly among the monks, awaiting his chance to escape the country with the UN's help. Will he now risk his freedom to find out who killed a revered teacher and several wandering orphan boys? To Pattison's credit, he makes Shan's choice to roam across the wastes of northern Tibet in a virtually endless and dangerous search seem inevitable and totally believable even if some readers would rather see him in action on the streets of London or San Francisco. And Shan's companions are largely fascinating: a vast gallery of Kazakh resistance fighters, White Russian smugglers who ride camels along the old Silk Road and Chinese officials of varying degrees of nastiness. Finally, though, there are too many people, places, events and questions and pages to sustain the amazing energy of Pattison's initial creation. (June 2)Forecast: Given the critical success of The Skull Mantra, which is being released simultaneously in paperback, and continuing political controversy surrounding China, this book has real breakout potential.
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