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The Spirit and the Skull by J. M. Hayes
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The Spirit and the Skull

by J. M. Hayes

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Although the plot centers around murder, this is not a murder mystery in the conventional sense. People seeking such a thing will not find it here.

The Spirit & the Skull is a very interesting exploration of a hypothetical paleolithic society, based on some archeological data and a lot of speculation, focusing on some of the first nomads to move into North America.

The society of the people is very well-drawn, I thought, combining both the ways in which we are similar and the ways in which their society was probably vastly different from ours. It focuses mostly on the menfolk, so women were largely treated as chattel; nonetheless, there were some ways in which their power was clear, though it would have been better balanced to make that more obvious. I find it really hard to believe that a subsistence-scrabbling tribe would have the resources to so thoroughly ignore the women on whom they rely; that's a luxury I doubt they could, in practice, afford.

The real problem is with the plot. Most especially: the time-traveling elements seemed completely out of place and unnecessary. I think they were supposed to ratchet up the tension around the paleo murders more, but it was not clear at all to me how these were connected in any sense, so that didn't work. I also found the resolution of the mystery to be arbitrary and not something that felt like an obvious solution.

Now, in some ways these might be strengths. I've read enough folktales in which causation and plot do not coincide with our current understandings, and this novel as a whole did remind me of such, as well as literary fiction as some create it.

Nonetheless, I found it a fascinating read, but ultimately unsatisfying ... which of course may have been the author's intent; I cannot say.

I received this book from Rambles.net, in exchange for writing an honest review. ( )
  cissa | Oct 10, 2014 |
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Murder is unthinkable to the People--a Paleolithic tribe migrating across Alaska and becoming some of the first undocumented immigrants to enter the Americas. For them, murder isn't merely tragic, it's forbidden. Murder poisons the entire tribe and puts it at odds with nature, the Spirits, and the mighty Earth Mother. A murderer must be found and removed in order to put the world back in balance. Raven is the aging Spirit Man to a band in which a member has been strangled with a garrote. Worse, evidence of witchcraft is linked to the killing--another terrible violation of the People's covenant with the Earth Mother and the Spirits. Raven isn't a Spirit Man because of sacredly held beliefs. He holds the position because his band needed someone to do so, and because he needed to secure his place among them. Now the agnostic Spirit Man begins having dreams in which a stranger holds Raven's skull in his hands, and a woman claiming to be the Earth Mother--accepted by many followers--declares that only Raven can solve the crimes and restore the People to harmony. How will a man who doubts the authenticity of this goddess satisfy her demands? What if she and the dreams are real and successfully solving the crimes will result in Raven's imminent death? An impossible situation becomes even harder as Raven finds it increasingly likely the young woman he's falling in love with must be the guilty party.… (more)

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