Poisoned Pen Press (2014)
Reviewed by Brittany Bernstrom for Reader Views (02/16)
“The Spirit and the Skull” by J.M. Hayes begins by introducing the reader to Raven who is sent to scout the terrain for the migration his tribe is making to warmer lands. Raven is part of a Paleolithic band known as The People. As the Spirit Man, Raven has the important role of communicating with the goddess Mother to ensure his tribe’s safe passage. Unfortunately, when he returns to find one of the leaders strangled, Raven is given a new role to find the culprit responsible for the death.
While fighting is common between tribes, murder within a tribe is the most forbidden sin and is sure to incite the Mother’s wrath. Pressure is on Raven to find the murderer hidden within his tribe before he strikes again or else risk the destruction of The People. But what will he do when the person he suspects is none other than the woman he loves?
To add additional pressure onto Raven, he begins to have strange dreams of a future vastly different from his own. In this world, Raven’s body is long gone, and a man with pale eyes has unearthed Raven’s skull. To the surprise of both men, Raven finds he can communicate with the man, finding that his consciousness is trapped within his skull. It is yet unseen whether this man will be a help or a hindrance to Raven, and only time will tell if these visions of the future will help him solve the murder of his tribe member, or if they are omens of a future filled with death.
The writing style is unique in that it bounces back and forth between the past and these dreams of the future, adding an air of mysticism to the novel. Initially this play between the two time periods caught my attention, but as the novel wore on, I found myself wishing the author had instead focused his attention on the prehistoric world, as it was the stronger storyline.
I felt that in “The Spirit and the Skull,” J.M. Hayes excelled with his descriptions of a land mostly untouched by humans, making the migration and the connections within the tribe the most interesting part of the novel. In contrast, the futuristic dreams felt weak and the ending did not tie back into the present, leaving the reader dissatisfied and questioning the intent of that storyline. Despite this, the book is a quick and entertaining read for the casual reader.