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.
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.
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
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