Wednesday, June 25, 2014

People of the Morning Star: Historical novel blends myth and intrigue

**This review originally appeared here at, where I gave the book 3 out of 5 stars.**
People of the Morning Star, by the archaeologist couple Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, is pretty interesting once it gets going.
It is set in the Native American (Mississippian) settlement of Cahokia, a city located near modern-day St. Louis, whose population in the 1200s would have made it one of the largest cities in the world. In this book, Cahokia is ruled by the Four Winds clan, led by the Morning Star, a god incarnated into the human flesh of Chunkey Boy, a Four Winds clan youth. The social structure of Cahokia is highly stratified; the most favored clans rule the others, with merchants and traders having less status, and “dirt farmers” having the relative status of peasants or serfs.
A threat in the form of a mysterious character named “Bead” enters Cahokia, bent on killing all of the Four Winds nobles, especially Morning Star, in order to claim his lost love, Lady Night Shadow Star, the sister of the former Chunkey Boy. His identity, his motivation, and his ultimate goal, however, remain a secret for most of the novel as he wreaks secret vengeance on his enemies through a web of co-conspirators sprinkled liberally throughout Cahokia’s class system. Night Shadow Star, however, has given control of her life and her “souls” to Piasa, the underwater panther spirit of the Underworld. Although the spirits of the Underworld are inimical to the spirits of the Sky, Morning Star allows his sister to commune with Piasa because her connection to this deity has proven useful. Her foresight has saved the lives of several nobles from Bead’s surprise attacks.
The story of People of the Morning Star, and Bead’s sinister plan, is gripping and intense. Bead is a genuine psychopath, and the chapters written from his perspective are beyond creepy. The slave Fire Cat and his begrudging loyalty, the roguish thief Seven Skulls Shield, the charmingly irascible Keeper — all of these characters are believable and fun to spend time with. Only Morning Star remains a cipher and, I think, suitably so; it maintains the mystery of whether or not this man is the god incarnate, or just the former Chunkey Boy playing the role for life. And I really liked the weaving of ancient Mississippian mythology into the plot; it was interesting to learn about these deity figures and their backstories through the lives of their Native American counterparts.
My major complaint about People of the Morning Star is that it tries too hard to educate its readers about this ancient civilization. For example, the prologue is a preachy modern-day vignette about a young Native man, John Wet Bear, learning about his Cahokian heritage. He becomes enraged and homicidal when he finds out about some white characters’ plans to exploit the story of Cahokia. His uncle talks him down from violence, and John replies, “Yeah, Unc? You think it was that way [in Cahokia]? Think our ancestors had anyone like me? Ready to sacrifice himself in the battle against evil?” This line was too on-the-nose, Hallmark-special for me.
The Cahokia-based story does not indulge in such cheesiness; it does, however, indulge in so many details that it feels like an encyclopedia description rather than a novel. I almost quit reading the book because the story took so long to get started. The first half spends too much time on world-building, and not enough time on character or plot. There are lots of descriptions of pots, weapons, buildings, clothing, and social structure. I understand that the Gears are archaeologists and highly invested in educating the public about the civilizations they study, and I laud them for this effort. I, for one, had no idea about Cahokia and am glad that I know about it now. But this book didn’t strike a particularly good balance between world-building and story-telling. I’m glad I stuck with it and finished it, though; the (eventual) story was really good.

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