Spirits and mummies and fire, oh my

Review: The Summoning God, by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

A keeper? No, even though it held my horrified attention

I’m starting to think I hate books that tell related stories in two different times. It’s one thing to have two sets of characters in different places; there’s room for them to cross paths or be affected by the same events or something. But stories with two groups in different centuries? Annoying.

In this one, the real story is set in the war-torn southwest U.S. – to be anachronistic – about 800 years ago. The extra story concerns a group of archaeologists who are excavating what turns out to be the town where the main characters live. And die. But why bother with the archaeologists?

A couple of guesses; that’s the best I can do. First, the Gears are archaeologists themselves – but they’ve written a lot of books about the last few thousand years in North America, and normally they settle for a short present-day prologue and then focus on the good stuff. Second, there is some argument about how to interpret Anasazi remains – Anasazi is the current term for the people this book is mostly about – and the Gears use the modern characters to tell us about the argument. And finally, the secondary group of people allows them to squeeze in a partial happy ending.

Because there isn’t much of a happy ending in the main story. The overall tone is oddly like noir detective fiction from the 1940’s: all the world is corrupt, no one can be trusted, the noblest plans may be thwarted, death waits around every corner. Unavoidable, I guess, when you’re writing about a time and place marked by a dramatic population crash. But the Gears bring it vividly to life with a town full of struggling, squabbling people and a series of increasingly gruesome questions.

Who left the mummified woman near Aspen Village – and who left a trail of copper bells to entice investigators into a trap? Who killed – and skinned – beloved Matron Flame Carrier? And who, who could or would have set fire to the kiva and burned so many young children? War Chief Browser is determined to find out. Meanwhile, shadowy threats menace the people of Longtail Village. Are they human enemies…or once-human witches…or murderous spirits?

I cared. I got involved in the story, worried for the characters, hoped that Browser would solve the mysteries in time to protect them. And by the end he does have answers to some of the strange things that have been happening. Unfortunately, he also has lots and lots of new questions that crop up in the last few chapters.

Normally, I try to avoid spoilers, at least unless I’m writing about a classic that most people probably know about already. And I’m not going to tell you who else dies, or who turns out to be a traitor. But the ending reminded me much too much of the X Files, or Lost – shows that spent years teasing viewers with the hope that they would finally clear up mysteries, all the while tossing out new puzzles.

After five hundred pages, I’ll put up with some loose ends. I won’t keep scrambling after an unraveled rope thick enough to moor a ship. The end of The Summoning God treats readers too much like the way the villains treated Browser early in the story, when they laid that trail of sparkling copper bells to lure him close enough to try to knock his head in. I won’t follow the shinies down the trail to the next book, and the next, and the next.

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