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Water Touching Stone    by Eliot Pattison order for
Water Touching Stone
by Eliot Pattison
Order:  USA  Can
Minotaur, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

After discovering the author's first novel, the riveting Skull Mantra earlier this year, I looked forward to this sequel with high enthusiasm. Water Touching Stone follows the fortunes of ex-Beijing Inspector Shan Tao Yun, now released from labor camp, but only free within Lhadrung Province. Risking freedom and life, he leaves his gompa sanctuary to carry out an investigation for its lamas, since 'Murder was an unknown land to them, and Shan was their ambassador.' Shan, the saintly Rinpoche Gendun, and the otherworldly (but surprisingly effective) Lokesh, are guided by ex-monk Jowa to the north, deep into the Kunlun mountains and the Xianjiang Autonomous Region, inhabited by the Kazakh and Uighur peoples.

On the way they encounter a dying Muslim child who had too much tragedy in his short life, mislay Gendun, and meet a young, spirited half-Tibetan half-Kazakh woman named Jakli; a part-time hatmaker with twinkling eyes. The middle aged Auntie Lau, a teacher and 'mother to everyone' has been tortured and murdered, and orphans are being stalked and killed. Other deaths follow, of a Chinese security knob and a young man, whom Shan believes to be an American. The Inspector must become like one of the ancient Tibetan warrior monks and learn to fight dragons in a 'struggle for those who love the god within and for those who can learn to do so.'

Shan's investigation takes him to a re-education prison called Glory Camp run by Prosecutor Xu Li, the Jade Bitch. There is an obsolete underground nuclear missile installation; the amazing ruins of the ghost city of Karachuk uncovered by a storm as it was once buried by one; and a Buddhist monastery in the ancient dzong of Senge Drak, once the home of fighting monks. Action includes the Karaburan, a deadly desert sandstorm that 'spilled ink in the sky' and high drama at the last nadam, a gathering of the Kazakh people to celebrate Jakli's wedding. Characters in the tale are varied and fascinating. In addition to the Kazakhs, there is the evil Major Bao with 'hands like cabbages, eyes like dirty ice'; the colorful Eluosi (of Russian ancestry) Marco, with his remarkably intelligent camel companion Sophie; and the American researchers who have eschewed Western values and are trying to make a difference.

The lamas teach throughout the story as when Shan recalls advice that 'no jailer who ever lived can imprison the truth' or when Gendun summarizes world history ... 'So instead of human beings fighting the wrong ... they just say it is for governments to do so. And governments say we must have armies to be safe, so armies are raised. And armies say we must have wars to be safe, so wars are fought. And wars kills children ... All because people just want to be old, instead of being true.' However this story is not a sermon, but an action-packed puzzle of hidden lamas, illicit excavations by foreign subversives, border smugglers, Tibetan and Kazakh resistance fighters, and plots within plots by the ruling bureaucrats and brutal security forces. The latter work hard to eradicate local cultural identity, and to break the cycle of identification of reincarnate lamas.

Even more than in The Skull Mantra, the author conveys the anguish of a people, watching helplessly as they are systematically destroyed. Water Touching Stone is a mystery with strong tragic elements, but as in his first work, the author opens up cracks for hope to sneak into his ending - in which an ex-lama finds a vocation and Shan finds a true friend. If you read any mysteries this year, make sure that both of Eliot Pattison's are on your list.

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