Vancouver writer and psychologist Lydia Kwa’s latest offering Oracle Bone is an epic and ambitious novel that’s a skillful blend of magical realism and historical fiction, with notes of epic fantasy and mythology as well, to create a book that, above all, never ceases to transport you utterly to a different time and place. It also has ample doses of feminism and a dash of queerness.
If you’re a fan of Lydia Kwa, you probably know her as a writer of sensuous and emotionally intelligent poetry (her most recent collection being Sinuous in 2013). But even if you’re familiar with her poetry, you many not know her 2005 novel The Walking Boy, whose story chronically follows that of Oracle Bone; in a way, then, her latest novel is a kind of prequel or precursor to The Walking Boy, which Arsenal Pulp Press is set to re-publish in a new edition in 2018. But while Oracle Bone does feel like a story that has yet to end, it’s also a satisfactory narrative in and of itself, and one sure to satisfy fans of any and all of the genres that Kwa is nodding to.
Although I would definitely classify this novel as magical realism rather than fantasy, it does have much the same feeling that epic fantasy does, namely in the large cast of interconnected characters, the play with the idea of destiny, and the multiple epic journeys more than one character—some of whom could readily be called heroines—takes. The setting of Oracle Bone is 7th century China, which for any 21st century reader, especially a white person living in North America like me, is transportation enough from the world I live in. Yet the historical aspect is only one of the ways Kwa transports the reader: the 7th century China the characters inhabit is full of magic. It is a place where myths are alive, prophecies shape people’s lives, and animal spirits and demons live among humans.
Kwa weaves together four main narratives: the first follows a girl Ling as she grows up after being saved by a Daoist nun named Qilan from slavery after her parents are killed by highway robbers; her main journey is preparing for revenge on the man who took her parents from her. The second story, closely related to Ling’s of course, is that of Qilan herself and her efforts to stop a demon inhabiting a human’s body from destroying humanity using the mysterious oracle bone of the title. The third: empress Wu Zhao, a politically ambitious woman with humble origins who has clawed her way to the top, attempts to take complete control of the Tang court from the emperor, with the help of her lover Xie. The fourth: a Buddhist monk works under an elder monk Xuanzang—himself under the thumb of the emperor and empress—on the translation of Buddhist scripture but questions his place in the monastery, especially given his attraction to men.
If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. (I told you this novel had much in common with epic fantasy; in fact, there is a helpful page detailing the cast of characters and their relationships with each other as is common in fantasy novels at the front of the book). But although the plots are complex, they’re also not hard to follow once you are immersed in the story. Another thing that’s essential to emphasize is that while action and plot movements are important, Oracle Bone isn’t one of those novels that sacrifices emotional depths or character complexities or spiritual relevancy for action. What I’m saying is that this story has magic, action, a fascinating historical setting, multifaceted characters, and all the feels. I feel that to tell you much more would be to deprive you of the pleasure of experiencing the novel for yourself, so you should just go do that now.
[Warning for graphic sexual and physical violence in the first scene, pages 15-22]