Shan's situation as the book opens seems mildly perilous but better than many he's already navigated: He wears the hated Chinese uniform of a local constable in the rural town of Yangkar, as part of a deal he's cut with the powerful Colonel Tan, his nemesis from preceding years. Although the Tibetans who've returned to live in the re-manufactured town don't trust him (prejudice works both ways), he at least has some professional standing, and most importantly, Ko is to visit him without shackles, for a few days every three months. When murders and devastation infect his town and he can't stop the killings and destruction, Shan fears he'll never see Ko after all.
But just when it looks like, against the odds, he'll have his son's companionship, Colonel Tan bulldozes into the town, angry at the chaos, grimly admitting to Shan, " I gave you the quietest post in my county, so remote no one would ever hear your howls of desperation."
Shan's passion for the old Tibetans and his embrace of their spiritual life and rituals mean he can't walk away (and if he did, how would he see Ko?). He faces Colonel Tan as both of them realize they have a joint enemy in the powerful "heroic" veteran General Lau, who despises them.
"Karma," Shan said at last. "It's like divine justice. That's the only kind that will ever reach General Lau."A pair of misplaced Americans, hidden histories of the town's past and the violence of the Chinese takeover, revelations of what Shan himself needs to learn -- all these are in play as, layer by layer, the careful investigator peels back the secrets around him and earns the trust of some of his neighbors ... and the dangerous enmity of others. Is there a treasure hidden on the Ghost Plain nearby? What remnants of the ancient Tibetan medical school may linger in the people around him? Can Colonel Tan still exert enough power to protect Shan against other Chinese military manipulations?
Tan cocked his head. "Surely Lau is not implicated. Don't even bother to suggest it. Lau would never kill soldiers. He just sees some kind of opportunity in this. He's bored in retirement. He found a diversion."
Shan looked longingly out the window toward the café where his son sat. He wanted so to be there with him, to take him home, to walk with him on a quiet mountain path, to rejoice with him in his temporary freedom and begin the list of activities he had planned for his visit. He glanced at his watch. "Give me a couple hours of your time," he said instead.
This is a highly satisfying book, where the small links and clues accumulate and are at last organized into a twist of plot that surprises even the investigator. The book's resolution is emotionally fitting as well. Consider what it may mean that a yak has been ransomed from death, and a raven persists in flying over the mountain that guards the secrets of the past.
As the author says in his end note, "The shadow that settled over Tibet decades ago sometimes makes writing novels set in that land feel like searching for jewels in a dim cave. ... The shadow may exist, but dig a little deeper and brilliance can still shine through."
PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.