Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
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Author website: The Words and Worlds of J.M. Hayes
of J.M. Hayes books
from one of our favorite writers
J.M. Hayes, author of one of my favorite series of all time, the Mad Dog and Englishman books, has veered off the modern mystery path with a completely fascinating stand-alone, "The Spirit and the Skull."
It is the story of Raven, spirit man to a paleolithic tribe that is trying to find a passage south to warmer lands. When Raven was five years old, Grandfather Eagle visited the band and told them that The Mother had appeared to him in visions, promising a land "where rolling prairies lay, filled to overflowing with the herds that grazed them. ..... mountains rich in game and beauty, lakes and great rivers bountiful with fish and fowl."
But now Raven is an old man by Stone Age standards, having passed more than forty summers, and the tribe is still traveling, looking for the passage to that promised land.
We meet Raven when he is out on his own, chased up a steep slope by a lion. He is saved when a great bear appears and scares away the lion but does not attack Raven.
On his way back from his scouting trip during which he thinks he has found the pass to the promised land he comes across an old and injured mammoth that his band might be able to kill, if he can lead his people back to it. Food for the long trip.
But when he gets home, he finds there has been a murder the most unforgivable of crimes among the people. Tall Pine has been garroted. Stone, the tribe's leader, is angry, but is all blunt force; it will be up to Raven to find the murderer.
He gets the news from Down, daughter of Stone. "... still a child, though barely. She was on the verge of womanhood, but hadn't yet bled. She was tall, slim, skinny almost, but with a hardness to her, a hidden strength I admired."
In fact, when Stone yells, "Raven! You're finally back. Stop trying to seduce my child and get down here," Down yelled back, "I'm the one who's trying to seduce him."
And we already know Raven is a horny guy, and he likes Down. "I'd be willing to pay a fine dire wolf pelt for her when she came of age. Except Stone wasn't likely to accept it. He'd prevented me from having a woman for years. A man of the spirits should remain pure, he'd decided."
Not that Stone's decree much slowed some of the women of the band, who knew Raven had some skill with lovemaking, and sometimes would meet him in secret.
Raven sets out to find the murderer, all the while doubting his ability. He became spirit man of the band because he'd learned the rituals and the medicines, but kind of doubts the whole spirit-world thing. He sometimes feels overwhelmed by what he's experiencing.
And he is fairly disturbed when early evidence seems to point at his crush, Down, as the possible murderer.
More killings take place, but in his heart he is sure Down is not the murderer. And his body gets pretty involved with her, too.
The tribe is in a lot of spirit trouble, and during this time Raven starts having scary dreams that he is only a skull, bouncing in the hands of a man with ice eyes. The man tells a "perfect woman" about how the skull had waited for 15,000 years to tell its story, a number shocking to Raven.
"The woman touched her skins. They fell away and shocked me yet again. Her sex was a hairless as a pre-adolescent's and yet her shape was very much that of a woman. Her breasts were full and incredibly upright for their size."
As a skull, he can't move around, but he has good vision of the strange place. And time.
When he wakes, he is back with his band, desperately trying to find the murderer and dealing with his forbidden love with Down.
Along the way, we learn a lot of fascinating stuff about paleolithic Indians, which makes sense, because Hayes was a grad student in archaeology when he took part in a National Science Foundation project that inspired this unusual tale.
There are many surprises and mysteries for Raven and readers to ponder, and brave actions he must undertake, both in his own body life, 15,000 years ago, and in modern times, after he learns how to communicate with the modern man with the ice eyes.
A fascinating read.
I've always liked Hayes' books because they carry real concern about humanity, and about what we do to ourselves and, plenty of real human emotions and reactions. That this book travels 15,000 years in time so Raven can fulfill the promise of his life makes it especially fascinating.
Email John Orr at email@example.com