J.M. Hayes,
The Spirit & the Skull
(Poisoned Pen Press, 2014)

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.

book review by
Amanda Fisher

11 October 2014

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