Mandarin Gate

In this seventh of Pattison's Shan novels, the fragile harmony of Shan Tao Yun's world is shattered when a cherished lama abruptly commits suicide at Shan's side. When he discovers an abbess has been murdered with two strangers just hours earlier Shan embarks on a desperate quest for the truth behind the deaths. He quickly finds himself in a labyrinth of deception and lies that seem aimed at the destruction of the serene, traditional lives of his Tibetan friends. Imprisoned and tortured for his efforts, Shan gains unexpected help from Chinese exiles and enters into an unlikely relationship with one of the Public Security officers he has learned to detest. The shocking truth he finally uncovers threatens to change Shan's world forever.

  1. Pattison's Shan novels always make a strong statement about the Chinese government's treatment of Tibetans. What do you think Mandarin Gate has to say about that government's treatment of the Chinese people?

  2. Early in Mandarin Gate Pattison introduces Chinese spirit tablets into the plot as a link into the exile community of Baiyun. He could have used another Chinese artifact for this purpose. Why do you think he chose the spirit tablets?

  3. In what ways might the community of Baiyun and the Clear Water nomad relocation camp be characterized as other forms of prison?

  4. When Shan arrives at his former gulag prison to visit his son, the author uses the phrase "once a prisoner always a prisoner" to describe Shan's initial reaction. What do you think he means by this?

  5. Pattison has previously described Shan as a "Chinese lama." Do you think there is more of the Chinese or more of the lama in Shan?

  6. In this, the seventh book in Pattison's Shan series, Shan finally has what might be characterized as a romantic relationship. Of Lieutenant Meng, Shan admits that he is attracted to whom she is but repulsed by what she is. What does this reveal about Meng? About Shan?

  7. One of the exiled professors in the Vermilion Society observes that the truest histories are those built on a thousand tales of the common man. In what sense could Mandarin Gate be considered such a history? Why do you think several reviewers have stated that Pattison's novels give a more effective picture of life in modern Tibet than many nonfiction chronicles?

  8. Near the end of the novel Lieutenant Meng murmurs a phrase her mother had used to describe her when she was younger: "little sparrow who dreams of swans." Why do you think Meng is repeating these words here?

  9. As in most of Pattison's novels, there is no justice in Mandarin Gate except a makeshift justice created by characters who have been abandoned by their governments or their societies. Do you think such justice may mean different things to different characters in the book? Does Lokesh, for example, think about justice in the same way as Shan? Does Lieutenant Meng?

  10. When Shan seeks to persuade Cora Michener to set aside her fears and help him, he tells her that in Tibet he has learned that "your life is not about what others do to you, it is about what you do to yourself." How might those words apply to Shan?

  11. The Jade Crows play many roles in this book: they are surrogate bullies for the police, thieves and smugglers but also protectors and enablers of Shan's final plan. Ultimately do you see them more as criminals, benign villains, or victims?

  12. Pattison has observed that in some ways his Tibetan settings are beyond time and place. Do you have this sense in Mandarin Gate? Do you think he is referring only to the lack of technology in many of his settings or is there a timeless aspect to certain themes in his book?



Bone Rattler

When he is called upon to investigate a grisly murder on board his prison ship Duncan McCallum assumes it is but a way for his English masters to complete the destruction of his Highland clan started years earlier. Forced to renounce all things Scottish since he was a boy, unfairly condemned to hard labor in America, Duncan is about to leap into the sea when an old Scot persuades him that Duncan is now the chief of his near-extinct clan, duty bound to survive and protect the Scottish prisoners from the bizarre events which have brought murder and suicide to their ranks. The hope that rises as Duncan begins to decipher those mysteries is soon overshadowed by a fearful discovery: the violence on board is somehow linked to the savages of the American wilderness. Though he has never before set foot in the New World, he is attacked by an Indian upon landing in New York, yet another Indian dies urgently trying to get a message to him. Accosted by an army officer, followed by an American ranger, shamed when the fragile daughter of the prison company's patron is kidnapped by the Iroquois, he begins to realize that he and the company are meant to somehow be sacrificed in the bloody war with the French and Indians-and the only solution is for Duncan to escape into the terrifying wilderness to follow a strange path of clues that seem half Highland Scot and half Iroquois. Duncan's journey through the wilderness, crossing the paths of settlers, German missionaries, and Indian sorcerers, leads him to a rough and painful justice which transforms him and his friends forever. With the epic struggles of the 18th century as its backdrop, Bone Rattler is not simply a tale about a hardwon triumph of justice but also one about the triumph of the human spirit.

For Discussion

1. How do the Bone Rattler plotlines and characters build upon similarities between the Scottish and Iroquois cultures?

2. How does the woodland Indian culture presented in the novel affect the political dynamic underlying the plot of Bone Rattler?

3. Pattison has often noted that his books ultimately are about the nature of justice, which can mean different things to different people. Does Bone Rattler suggest that there is a "natural" form of justice that exists without laws and courts? Does the justice sought by the Scots differ from that sought by the Indians?

4. Most history books present 18th century America in terms of aristocrats and wealthy planters. Why does Pattison present this period through the eyes of exiles and outcasts? How might this relate to his statement that in Bone Rattler he seeks to bring to life the invisible people who really formed America?

5. In the second chapter, speaking of Duncan's duty to his lost Scottish clan, Lister states "There's the rub. Ye'll never have their world. But ye'll always have their name." How does this become a theme in the novel? In early America?

6. "The darkness there is like nothing I've ever seen," Lister warns of the western forest across the river from Edentown. "Worse than the blackest sea in the blackest storm. Ye can read the sea, but ye can't read that. There is no bottom to it, there is just black behind the black...There is no soul alive who's been from one side to the other...Go into it and the clan dies." How does Pattison use the American wilderness as another character in his novel?

7. In what ways might Sarah Ramsey be considered representative of an emerging "American" woman?

8. "When all the land's gone there will be only things in your world," the Iroquois shaman declares to Lord Ramsey as he tries to understand the English. "Will those things have life?" How do differing views of the earth and wilderness drive the English and the Indians in this novel?

9. The parallels between the plight of the Highland Scots and the plight of the American Indians resonate deeply with Duncan by the end of the novel. What parallels do you see beyond their unfair treatment by the British king?

10. What do you think Pattison means in his closing note that sometimes historical fiction can strike closer to the truth than history books?




The Skull Mantra

When a headless corpse is found by a prison work gang on a windy Tibetan mountainside, veteran inspector Shan Tao Yun might seem the perfect man to solve the crime -- except that Shan is a prisoner himself for offending the Party in Beijing. Desperate to close the case before an American tourist delegation arrives, the district commander has no choice but to grant a temporary release from prison to the brilliant and embittered Shan, while confronting him with an ultimatum: solve the case fast and in a politically expedient fashion or the Tibetan monks in Shan's work brigade will be punished. When the early evidence points to an ancient Buddhist demon as the killer and Party officials try to thwart Shan's investigation by arresting an innocent monk, Shan is thrown into a maelstrom of political and religious intrigue involving American mining interests, Tibetan sorcerers, corrupt Party officials, a secret illegal monastery, and the Tibetan resistance movement.

1. Why has Pattison chosen an exiled Chinese as the main character, and the primary vehicle for explaining the very different world of Tibet? Why do you think he chose not to use a Tibetan as his main character?

2. After he is offered a chance to politically rehabilitate himself, "Shan stared at a dim, vaguely familiar ghost, his reflection in the window. It was happening. He was being reincarnated into a lower lifeform." What does this passage reveal about Shan's personality and the way Tibet has transformed his life?

3. As Shan descends into the skull cave shrine in Chapter Eight he undergoes a deep emotional reaction. "They weren't in the heart of the mountain," Pattison writes. "They were in the heart of the universe, and the numbing silence that welled around them wasn't a silence at all, but a soul wrenching hoarseness like the moment before a scream." How do the physical settings of this book help to heighten its drama?

4. How do The Skull Mantra's plotlines draw on differences between Chinese, Tibetan, and American cultures? Do those differences explain why each of the central characters approaches the underlying murder in a different way?

5. The lama Choje warns Shan about harboring too much hope. "It still consumes you," the lama says, "It makes you wrongly believe that you can strike against the world. It distracts you from what is important." What does Shan mean when he replies "I do not have the strength not to hope"?

6. Pattison provides several perspectives on Colonel Tan, the military commander. After reading the book, how do you see him? As a tyrant? A forgotten, bitter bureaucrat? A symbol of a heartless, intolerant government? A victim of the very persecutions he has carried out? How do Colonel Tan, Sergeant Feng, and Dr. Sung reflect what oppression can do to the oppressors?

7. Pattison has often noted that his books explore the relative nature of justice, that justice, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder. How does The Skull Mantra highlight how justice means different things to different people?

8. Yeshe serves as a symbol of the dilemma of the modern Tibetan, trying to live in two worlds. What is the real source of Yeshe's anguish at the end? Is it because he has by his own actions cut himself from any future life with the monks? Is it because he has let down Shan? Is it because he has lost all sense of his own identity?

9. Pattison's books evoke widely different reactions to their endings. How did you feel when finishing The Skull Mantra? Uplifted? Depressed? Angry? Despondent? Satisfied that justice has been done?

10. How do you think Tibetans react to this book? Chinese citizens? Chinese officials?



Ashes of the Earth

For Hadrian Boone the ending of the world has no ending. The apocalypse that all but extinguished humankind may have occurred twenty-five years earlier, but for Hadrian each day he wakes in the small colony of survivors the torment begins anew. When his friend and mentor Jonah Beck, the leading scientist of Carthage colony, is brutally murdered, Hadrian abandons all hope. But as the colony's tyrannical governor begins to use the murder as an excuse to complete his destruction of the colony's outcasts, Hadrian rises out of his despair, determined to stop the governor by discovering the truth.

Hadrian begins a desperate journey through the underbelly of the colony and into the wretched camps of the outcasts, escorted by Jori Waller, a young policewoman who struggles to cope with the physical and emotional remnants of a world she never knew. Ultimately Hadrian's journey becomes one of self-discovery, and to find justice his greatest challenge is navigating the tortuous path of the human spirit in a world that has been forever shattered.

Pattison's post-apocalyptic world is populated with battered survivors who murmur fifty-year old rock songs like mantras, criminals who use secrets of the old world to subvert the new, priests who fear God has given up on humankind, and a new generation whose view of history is driven by myth and fear. Ashes of the Earth offers a journey through a alternate world that poignantly explores the meaning of justice, morality, and ultimately civilization itself.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Most post-apocalyptic novels are set in the bleak near-term aftermath of destruction. Why do you think Pattison chose to set Ashes of the Earth a generation after the apocalypse?

  2. Why do you think Pattison never speaks in his book of the specific causes of the apocalypse?

  3. The colony of Carthage struggles to construct a new world on the ashes of the old. While it has knowledge of 21st century science, the only tools and technology available to it are of the early industrial age. How do you think science and technology would evolve under such circumstances? How did Pattison's selection of the Great Lakes setting for Carthage affect its technology and economy?

  4. If, as in Carthage colony, all literature and history of recent decades is forbidden, how will culture and learning evolve? When, as in Carthage, religion is intertwined with the works of Shakespeare, what do you think the outcome would be? How do the vestiges of culture salvaged from multiple centuries affect life in Carthage?

  5. The murdered Jonah Beck was driven in his final months by the poet Dylan Thomas' injunction to "rage against the dying of the light." When she encounters the ruined lands for the first time in a generation, Nelly states that "I'm not sure any more if we are the spark of civilization. Maybe we are just the dying ember." Might the poet's words have different meanings for different characters in Ashes of the Earth?

  6. Pattison offers several perspectives on Lucas Buchanan, the governor of Carthage colony. After reading the book, do you see Buchanan as a tyrant or a victim of the events he himself set into motion?

  7. Pattison has often stated that when writing his novels his characters become very real companions to him. What would it be like to have companions living on the other side of the apocalypse?

  8. Why would the characters in Ashes treat the ruins of the prior world—our current world-- and chronicles of the years just prior to the apocalypse as taboo? For many colonists, Pattison writes, "Revealing modern history to your children was like telling them they had a genetic disease." If you were a survivor of that world with children born afterwards, how do you think you would describe that lost world to them?

  9. Pattison states that in writing Ashes he began to sense tension between the survivors and the new generation. Jori Waller rails at Hadrian that "the only real people to you are in your nightmares!" How do you think a character born after the apocalypse would view the lost world? With resentment? With sympathy? With fear?

  10. A shadow seems to lurk in many scenes of Ashes. Often it seems this must be the annihilation of the prior civilization—our civilization. But sometimes it feels like it may be civilization itself. Which is it?

  11. In describing his alternate future Pattison has stated "Everything has changed. Nothing has changed." What do you think he means?

  12. Pattison's novels are often said to span genres. Ashes of the Earth may be a mystery but it is also speculative fiction, and often has the atmosphere of an historical novel. How would you characterize it?

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