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Bone Mountain    by Eliot Pattison order for
Bone Mountain
by Eliot Pattison
Order:  USA  Can
Minotaur, 2002 (2002)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Skull Mantra, Eliot Pattison incarcerated 'the last honest man in Beijing', disgraced Chinese police inspector Shan Tao Yun in the Lhadrung Valley labor camp in Southern Tibet. The author gave Shan a precarious freedom, though not a legal identity, at the end of that outstanding first novel. Then, in Water Touching Stone, Pattison sent Shan to solve a puzzle in the Xianjiang Autonomous Region, inhabited by the Kazakh and Uighur peoples. Shan has had opportunities to leave Tibet but has stayed, perhaps because he believes that 'If the earth had a place and a season for growing souls, this was surely it, the chill moonlit spring of the high Tibetan wilderness.'

In Bone Mountain, Shan is set another challenge to unravel the plots within plots of the ruling bureaucrats (this time Religious Affairs, the Howlers) and of the brutal security forces, the Knobs. As the story opens, Shan is assisting his old cell-mate Lokesh and his teacher Gendun in a sand ritual to 'change the world', when there is the usual interruption, a Public Security helicopter. It turns out that Shan, a Chinese with a pure heart, is needed for a new quest, to travel north to Amdo/Qinghai and there 'patch the god', the deity who guards Yapchi Valley, with an artifact stolen back from the 54th Mountain Combat Brigade of the People's Liberation Army at great risk - a 'jagged piece of stone' which is the god's eye.

Gendun warns Shan that this will be his greatest test. He is accompanied on his travels by Lokesh; a mute aristocratic dung collector who seems to be another escapee from the gulag; a young oracle with a crippled leg; a bandit; and a nun who undergoes a crisis of faith. There's a salt caravan, a historical massacre; a missing abbot; a manhunt for a resistance leader called the Tiger; a mountain bleeding oil; a surprisingly violent dobdob (monk policeman); a politically correct gompa; an old, frail medicine lama; a missing American seismologist; and a cowboy US diplomat, who tells Shan 'If I know about all this, and do nothing, what does that make me?'.

The oracle predicts 'So many dead, so many to die' and, as usual, Shan is soon in the center of a karma storm, on the side that pits prayer flags and mantras against Chinese tanks. And, as always, the bad guys are not all bad, nor the good guys all good. Tibetan resistance fighters are torn between their reverence for the lamas and a desire for revenge. And the lamas manage to reach 'the god within' one of the worst of the oppressors, and to close a circle of violence that involved both sides. You should read this series if you enjoy a good mystery in a unique cultural context, or if you have any interest in Tibetan Buddhism or the plight of Tibetans. It will engage you and make you weep.

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