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Oracle Bones, by Lydia Kwa

November 16, 2017

Oracle BoneOracle Bones, by Lydia Kwa. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017.

4 stars

An exciting narrative of ghosts and spirits, Buddhism and Taoism, and power politics which include women, set in seventh-century China and written by a Chinese Canadian woman.

Lydia Kwa is a Canadian who came to the country in 1980.  While she was earning her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she began writing and publishing her poetry.  She established her clinical practice in Vancouver where she continues to practice, but she also has made room in her life to become an established author who has published several novels.

Oracle Bones interweaves two narratives. In one, a nun saves a young girl from slavery and brings her to a cloister where she is educated.  In the other, a woman gains the Chinese throne by being more ruthless than her competitors.  In both stories, Kwa uses traditional male versions of Chinese history and mythology but subverts them with the inclusion of powerful women.  Both stories are also full of magical powers and the spirituality of Buddhism and Taoism.  As the stories intersect, dangerous conflicts surface over the control of a magical object, a bone oracle.

Although the context is sometimes strange, Kwa tells her stories with grace and clarity.  Her extensive experience in psychology is reflected in her treatment of her characters.  In her hands, the Tang dynasty in China carries tense reflections of our society today.  A list of the major characters at the front of the book is helpful.

I recommend this book to those who are excited by new versions of old narratives and who like drama and excitement combined with psychological insight.  And to those who love magic.

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