Nora Kelly has been an assistant professor at the prestegious Sante Fe Archaeological Institute for five and a half years, and her tenure review is coming up in another six months. The trouble is, she hasn't managed to keep up with the Institute's publishing requirements, and she's not likely to be granted tenure if she doesn't finish writing up her findings from two digs she worked on. But she dreams of making a major discovery, of finding the lost Anasazi site her father spent his life searching for. That more than anything would catapult her career onto the leading edge of Southwestern archaeology.
Then one day she is attacked while visiting the old ranch house she grew up in. The bestial men, clad in furs and smelling oddly of flowers, demand she give up some letter. She manages to escape, but knocks over her old mailbox with her truck. An envelope falls out, and she jumps out of the truck to grab it before getting back in and racing back to the city. The envelope contains a letter from her father, written years before but mailed recently, in which he talks of actually finding the legendary Anasazi city of Quivira.
After confirming her father's directions using satellite imagery of the area, Nora manages to talk the head of the Institute into putting together an expedition to find the legendary city. Leading some of the best names in the business, along with a reporter from New York, she sets out along the road to legend.
Thunderhead, the fourth novel from the writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, explores the idea that behind every myth and legend there hides a kernel of fact. The novel tackles two legends of the American Southwest: the skinwalkers or witches of Navaho mythology and the lost myth of a lost city of gold. Skinwalkers are the antithesis of the Navaho way, doing the opposite of every teaching of Navaho religion. They supposedly have magical powers, including the ability to shapeshift into wolves, and can kill by simply blowing corpse powder (made from the prints on the toe and fingertips of the dead) into one's face. The lost city, called Quivira, hidden in the canyons of Utah, was supposed to be peopled by the priests and filled with the combined golden wealth of the Anasazi. Several Spanish explorers, including Coronado, sought the site, based on legends related by local tribes.
At it's heart, Thunderhead is also a story of obsession, a theme Preston and Child have taken on well in other novels like Riptide and The Ice Limit. Nora Kelly and Sloane Goddard, both archaeologists, both daughters of archaeologists, share the obsession of finding the lost city Quivira, whatever the cost. For Nora, it means vindicating her father's life-long search and his death, as well as placing her at the forefront of her field. It would do for her what finding Tutankhaman's tomb did for Howard Carter. For Sloane, it will mean the vindication of her own life and career, proof positive that she is every bit the field scientist her father was in his day. For the first time in her life, she will be able to earn his respect, to fulfill his exceptionally (and often unreasonably) high expectations, to make him proud. Throughout the expedition, both women are willing to risk life and limb, their own, their horses, and even the other expedition members. They are both Ahabs, and the question is: will either of them back down before getting everyone killed?
I didn't grab this one as soon as it came out, though I now know I should have. I had been disappointed in Mount Dragon, which hadn't really lived up to the expectations raised by Relic. I was very pleasantly surprised when I finally did read Thunderhead. The research and the writing are both top-notch, and as always the writing styles of the two authors blend together into a seamless whole. Even knowing that certain scenes were writen primarily by one or the other of the authors, I couldn't find a place where the flow shifted in any way. The action, while not continuous, keeps the reader's interest, and the expository sections where theories or history are explained are written well enough to keep the story moving, often difficult to do in a thriller. The ideas presented for the truth behind the disappearance of the Anasazi tribe, the rise of the skinwalkers, and even the medical basis for corpse powder, are all intriguing; it's worth reading the book for those alone. All in all, I'd recommend Thunderhead to anyone interested in any of those, or just someone looking for a good adventure thriller.
Preston, Douglas and Lincoln Child. Thunderhead. Warner Books. 1999.