Review: People of the Silence

Husband-and-wife team W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear write thoroughly researched novels about the different people groups living in North America in pre-Columbian times. This one, about the Anasazi or Pueblo Indian ancestors, is actually set in about 1150 A.D. This culture is “prehistoric” only in the sense that we don’t have a formal, written record of everything that went down, although there is plenty of archaeological evidence and oral tradition.

A Ceremonial City

This book comes with three maps. (I love me some maps!) The first shows North America with the general locations of the people groups who will come into play in the novel: “The Tower Builders,” “The Straight Path People,” the Mogollon, and the Hohokam. A second shows the Four Corners region, including Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, where most of the action in this book takes place, including the Great South Road built by the Anasazi and the Straight Path People’s names for all the surrounding features. I flipped back to this map many times throughout the course of the book. A third map shows a closeup of Chaco Canyon, or as the characters call it, Straight Path Wash. It shows the locations of the towns there. These can still be seen today, but the authors have given them names that the ancient Pueblo Indians might have used, such as Talon Town, Starburst Town, etc.

Talon Town (the book’s name for what is now called Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon) is the capital of the Straight Path people’s civilization. It is occupied by their priest/king, the Blessed Sun; his wife, the nation’s Matron; a seer, the Sunwatcher; the nation’s War Chief; a number of warriors; and numerous slaves, mostly people captured from neighboring groups such as the Hohokam, who are there to serve these aristocrats. Talon Town produces almost no goods of its own. Food, clothing, blankets, shells, turquoise, etc. are brought in as tribute from surrounding villages over quite a wide area, or are obtained through trade. This is what the archaeological record seems to show us.

Talon Town has two large plazas, each with a kiva in it, so that it can host religious gatherings such as solstice ceremonies and funerals for important people. Here is the authors’ description of what it might have looked like inside one of the Great Kivas as a young apprentice prepares the Blessed Sun’s body for burial:

Thlatsina [=kachina] masks hung over the small wall crypts, glittering with precious stones. Thirty-six in all, they wore brilliantly colored headdresses of blue, yellow, red, and deep black feathers. Tufts of pure white eagle down crowned many masks. Neck ruffs of buffalo, badger, rabbit, and other hides gave the appearance of beards. But Poor Singer’s eyes lingered on the sharp fangs and polished beaks that glinted in the fire’s amber glow.

The circular kiva stretched at least a hundred hands across, supported by four red masonry pillars and encircled by three bench levels. Each bench had its own sacred color, yellow, red, and blue topped by white walls.

Another body rested on the opposite foot drum, covered completely by a beautiful Death Blanket. Poor Singer couldn’t guess who it might be.

People of the Silence, p. 416

Now, the Plot

Here is the review of People of the Silence I posted on Goodreads a month ago.

Some historical novels or speculative novels set in ancient times seem to cut-and-paste modern concerns onto those supposedly ancient characters. The Gears definitely don’t do that. That is one of my top concerns in historical fiction, so props to them.

It did take me a looong time to finish this. The novel starts with a steep climb through a lot of info dumps about Anasazi cosmology, including an extended vision that happens to a young man whom we haven’t gotten to know yet. All during the vision, I kept trying to figure out what the different elements in the vision represented in the cosmological scheme that had just been presented. Later, it turned out that we weren’t supposed to totally understand the vision at the time, and it would be revealed later. Perhaps, if I had read any other books by the Gears, I would have realized this sooner, but as this was my first one, I didn’t at first have that confidence.

The steep climb continues, as we are introduced to a large cast of characters. For about the first half of the novel, it wasn’t clear to me which characters, if any, I was supposed to sympathize with. In the book, the Anasazi have a brutal caste system based on “First People” and “Made People,” and slaves captured in raids on other tribes. Some of the First People later turn out to be sympathetic characters, but you don’t find that out until about halfway through the novel. Also, some characters who are supposed to be sympathetic are seen committing atrocities when we first meet them. Eventually it becomes clear that this is a very brutal society, and the prevalence and unavoidability of violence is part of the point of the novel; but again, the violence does make it hard to figure out who we are meant be to rooting for.

After the steep climb, which lasts about half the novel, we have a long plateau (a mesa top, if you will) where we are getting to know the characters and the intricate machinations taking place in their dying society. Wheels within wheels! The whole novel also includes a lot of beautiful, lyrical descriptions of the Four Corners landscape. The Gears do a great job giving you a sense of what time of day it is, what the weather and background look like, and details of what people are eating and wearing, and how they are wearing their hair. Almost every dialogue tag comes with a one-sentence description of what the character looks like at the moment (e.g. “Her greying black hair had come loose around her beautiful triangular face, which was covered in smears of reddish dust”). Stephen King would hate this, but I don’t mind it. It helps you keep track of the different characters by forming mental images of them, and it gives that much-coveted visual glimpse into what the Anasazi looked like. (For example, they dressed in bright colors, and their royalty decorated themselves with copper bells and macaw feathers.)

Finally, having scaled and then trekked across the mesa, once you are comfortable in the world and familiar with all the power dynamics, the last hundred or so pages take you on a mad, roller-coaster rush down the other side, as secrets are revealed, violence explodes, and desperate, last-minute measures are tried. This book even turned out to be a rather creepy murder mystery, with an unexpected but satisfying reveal of the murderer.

After the novel, there is an extensive bibliography of all the archaeological and anthropological sources the Gears consulted.

If you liked my book The Long Guest, you will probably like People of the Silence, and vice versa. 

2 thoughts on “Review: People of the Silence

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