A Review of Lydia Kwa's Oracle Bone
Review by Amanda Leduc
Set in the same world and chronologically prior to the events described in her novel The Walking Boy, Vancouver author Lydia Kwa’s Oracle Bone plunges us into the world of seventh-century China. The novel follows the journey of several characters: Ling, an orphaned girl who is saved from slavery by Qilan, a Daoist nun; Xie, an illicit lover of the Empress Wu Zhao; and Harelip, a monk struggling with matters of the heart and soul whilst helping to translate sacred Buddhist Scriptures.
Qilan fast becomes protector, confidant, and inspiration to Ling, who journeys with Qilan to the capital city and trains to avenge the bandits who murdered her parents. There are hints throughout the book of Qilan’s magical heritage, but it isn’t until the last third of the novel that Kwa makes the full extent of Qilan’s power and history known, making for an enjoyable journey of discovery on part of the reader.
Kwa is adept at setting location and mood — there’s an earthy and yet mystical sense of place that thrums through the book. The novel doesn’t read like fantasy so much as it seems to offer a window into another time and place, an age where magic was so plentiful as to be taken for granted. With this, the novel strikes just the right mix of unknown and commonplace; we can empathize with the journey of orphaned Ling and feel for the struggles of the monk Harelip, so named for his deformity, who is questioning his sexuality and longing for beauty in a world that has denied him the opportunity to experience both of these things. We can feel for Qilan, lost daughter trying to redeem both her father and herself. Magical though they might be, these characters are also familiar, and so too are their struggles.
The novel does suffer, significantly, from gaps in time and pacing. Shortly after Qilan and Ling’s arrival at the capital city, the novel skips forward a few years in time to the fulfillment of Ling’s quest for revenge, the result being that we don’t get to see how Ling matures as a fighter and as a girl trying to determine her place in the world. In the absence of this progression, we get information short-cuts via clumsy bits of exposition — “She wanted to learn as much as she could, but it seemed to her that in the three-and-a-half years since she’d met Qilan, the nun had only taught her a handful of spells.”— or through information told directly to the reader through dialogue and conversation. The same thing happens when we encounter Wu Zhao, an empress bent on usurping her husband and cementing her own place on the throne. Earlier parts of the book give us a few hints and scenes with the Empress, with the bulk of her history coming in the form of a treatise that she writes to explain the influence of a strange prophecy on her life: “‘One day I will fulfill the prophecy,’ she muttered to herself under her breath as she began to write.” Harelip’s journey, likewise, feels both sped up and strangely truncated — his yearnings get buried in the focus on translating the sacred scriptures, only to then be satisfied in a scene that happens quickly and is almost impractically convenient.
One gets the sense, in coming to the end of Oracle Bone, that the narratives within the novel are spread out too far and wide — that the book tries to tackle too much within its pages. Though powerful in places and teeming with a wonderful mysticism, Oracle Bone ultimately feels disorganized and rushed, which is a pity — the richness of these characters and the world they inhabit could have carried so much more.
Amanda Leduc is the author of THE MIRACLES OF ORDINARY MEN (ECW Press, 2013), and THE CENTAUR'S WIFE, forthcoming from Random House Canada in 2019. Her stories and essays have appeared in publications across Canada and the United States. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she works as the Communications and Development Coordinator for The Festival of Literary Diversity, Canada's first festival for diverse authors and stories.