Skeleton God by Eliot Pattison is the 9th book in the Inspector Shan Tao Yun series (available March 14, 2017).
If you would know the age of the human soul, an old lama had once told Shan Tao Yun, look to Tibet. Here at the roof of the world, where humans were so battered, where wind and hail and tyranny had pounded so many for so long, it was a miracle the human spark remained at all. As Shan gazed at the old Tibetan herder beside him, knee deep in mud, grime covering his grizzled, weathered face, and saw the eyes shining with the joy of life, he knew that he was looking at something ancient and pure. In Tibet, souls were tried, and souls were tormented, but always souls endured.
With the very first paragraph, author Eliot Pattison sets the tone for the entire mystery to follow. Skeleton God is a heavy piece of fiction—frequently bleak, often vibrating with rage and terrible sadness, but ultimately laced with shreds of hope to buoy the spirit amidst all of the heartache and atrocities.
Inspector Shan has fallen greatly over the previous eight books in the series. After surviving years of hard labor in a brutal prison, after investigating corruption and incurring all manner of official punishments, the honor-bound and duty-driven investigator has been made constable of a remote village high in the mountains of Tibet: Yangkar. Here, the locals distrust him because he is Chinese, though he is far kinder and more sympathetic to their awful plights than many of his communist comrades would be.
For the most part, Shan is fine with his remote posting. In Yangkar, his fugitive Tibetan friend Lokesh can visit without fear, and his son Ko—currently an inmate at a nearby prison camp—will be allowed to see him on brief paroles.
But the seeming peace of Yangkar is rudely broken when an elderly nun is savagely beaten near caves considered taboo. Beside her, an ancient tomb is discovered containing three bodies: a gilded saint who has every right to be there, a murdered Chinese soldier who has been hidden for fifty years, and a newly-slain American tourist.
“He was calling out,” the knob observed.
“There was a sound from the grave, that's all,” Shan said. “An animal fell inside, perhaps.”
“No,” the knob insisted. “I mean he was calling out.”
Shan followed Jinhua's gaze to the folded hands. He stopped breathing for a moment ... then quickly dropped into the tomb himself. He pulled out his own prayer amulet, as if to show the long-dead lama, then, pushing down some of the tattered ornate rug that covered much of the body, so large it was bunched against the sides of the tomb, he stepped closer and reached out. Clenching his jaw, he pried up the topmost hand. The long-dead lama was holding a cell phone.
When Shan discovers that the Chinese soldier and the American were tortured before being killed in an identical fashion, he's unable to look past the truth: that someone who killed fifty years ago has killed again and must now be stopped.
The mystery behind the foreigner, what brought him to Yangkar, and why he was murdered is masterfully interwoven with a tale of cultural genocide that spans the decades of Communist China's brutal rule over Tibet. From the Red Guard of the ‘60s to current political propaganda, Pattison is unflinching in laying bare the human rights atrocities that continue to plague the remote, beautiful country. It makes for some deeply moving and equally upsetting reading, but it is a story that must be told—and here, has been told well.
Shan is an inherently kind man forced into a tenuous and terrible position. As constable, he is ordered to uphold the harsh rulings of China, to report any undocumented people or cultural artifacts he discovers. His job constantly forces him to act contrary to his own moral code and desires.
He can only subvert his official orders in small, subtle ways, but he does everything he can to help the abused and terrified people he guards over. He may be forced to wear the communist uniform, but he remains a deeply spiritual and giving person with an especial soft spot for the “feral”—or unregistered—nomads who are connected to the central mystery by tragic bonds of blood.
“So now I understand,” Yara declared in a defiant voice. “I will never go to your office again.”
The words brought an unexpected pain. At another time, in another age, Yara and her family could have become his close friends. But the tunic he was forced to wear would never permit it. “Please. Think of your son and your grandparents. The longer the knobs are here, the greater the danger to you. An American was murdered. The violence isn't over. Help me stop it. Who found Nyima's beads? That rider must have come down from the Plain of Ghosts with them. Why did the woman with the green eyes have to see them so urgently?”
She looked up as the moon emerged from behind a cloud. Her uplifted face glowed in the soft light and for a moment she looked more like one of the beautiful dakini goddesses depicted in Tibetan paintings than any woman he had ever met. But through her physical beauty, through her defiant strength, there was something else that he had seen too often, the flaw in her beauty. Her strength was hollow because there was no hope behind it.
Pattison paints the wilderness and people of Tibet with a beautiful, feeling brush, making their pain, suffering, and resilience very real and visceral. Skeleton God is equal parts funerary lament over a time destroyed by the ravages of armies and governments, searing condemnation of current political policies, and a moving testament to the spirit of survival.
This is a mystery steeped so heavily in death and misery, it can be difficult to read at times. But there's also a tender poignancy and an underlying call to fully live in the moment, to snatch happiness and satisfaction whenever possible. It's a story that resonates with spiritual beliefs, omens, and ghosts, and is peopled with men and demons (who are rarely identified correctly).
Skeleton God isn't for the faint of heart—but it rewards the stern of spirit.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.