Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

Read: 13 February, 2014

Shaman starts off quite slowly, and continues on in a very “slice of life” sort of way. I was about halfway through when a friend asked me what it was about, and I had no idea how to answer. As I put it then, I felt that Robinson was establishing the characters and the setting, but the actual plot hadn’t begun yet. I suppose that’s true, there is a Big Thing that takes up much of the second half of the novel, but I think it would be more accurate to say that the plot is simply very subtle and very slow.

The tone was quite different from Auel’s Earth’s Children series. While Auel writes of all the developments in human societies (often thanks to Ayla’s many inventions), Shaman is more aware of how tenuous knowledge can be in pre-literate societies. One untimely death, one forgetful apprentice, and hard-won knowledge can be lost forever – or at least until it’s rediscovered.

The same is true of life. In Earth’s Children, the people lived happily off the land. There were occasional floods, earthquakes, or other disasters, but generally the people were well-fed and established. This is quite different from the view in Shaman where the seasons can be identified by how starved individuals look, and every spring comes with the possibility of death.

Where both agreed – and I quite liked this – was in how problems could be solved. A trouble-maker can’t just be gotten rid of, raiders can’t just be slaughtered. Rather, people have to find ways to work together, to get around their differences and appease hurt feelings.

I really enjoyed Shaman, and it’s clear that Robinson is a very strong writer. I can see why someone who needs Stuff to be happening might feel bored, but I found that my interest was held through the many lulls by my interest in the writing.

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Series: Earth’s Children by Jean Auel

Clan of the Cave Bear was a fantastic read. The pacing was slow, but it had compelling characters, interesting themes, and made me feel transported to the world of the Ice Age. I would, without hesitation, rank it among my favourite books.

Valley of the Horses was interesting in a different way. Divided in two, with Ayla’s survival tale and Jondalar’s travel narrative, it didn’t pack nearly as strong a punch as Clan of the Cave Bear had.

After that, the narrative slowed down even more, getting worse with each new instalment. Plains of Passage warranted only a few chapters, the “does he, doesn’t it?” plot of Mammoth Hunters should have been a quarter as long, and the final two books ought to have been combined. 

The narratives were stretched out with endless repetition. The sociological descriptions and explanations of the natural environments are great and add a great deal of the flavour that I love to the series, but even these suffered from a great deal of repetition. Far worse, however, is the endless explanation of plot. It makes sense to review content from past books, especially when a lot of time has passed since those books were published, but that’s now what Auel is doing much of the time. “If you’ll remember” passages can cover the same information multiple times within a couple chapters, and some of the content covered comes from earlier in the same book! There’s so much repetition that I got into the habit of not bothering to re-read sections if I zoned out because there was no point – I knew I’d be told again what had happened shortly.

I found the relationship between Ayla and Jondalar to be disturbing. Their love is consistently described as being intense, yet it seems to lack substance. As far as I can tell, it’s based on nothing more than Ayla having a vagina deep enough to take Jondalar’s large penis, and Ayla being infatuated with the first man she’s ever seen (not to mention the first man she’s ever had good sex with).

Further, the plot of two out of the six books revolves around Ayla and Jondalar having a falling out. In both cases, it never seems to occur to either of them to just talk things through. Instead, they avoid each other and work themselves up based on assumptions and misunderstandings. The first is resolved by Jondalar raping Ayla (which was totally good because she liked it!), and the second is resolved by Ayla essentially trying to commit suicide. If there was ever a definition of an unhealthy relationship…

I did find the series compelling enough despite its flaws to see it through until the end, but part of that was sheer stubbornness. I really enjoyed the sociological discussions, and mostly tackled the final book for them, as I had largely grown tired of the characters and plot.

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Earth’s Children #6: The Land of the Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel

Read: 29 September, 2013

In this final book, Ayla trains to become a Zelandoni and has to deal with the difficulties of being a “career woman.”

As I had predicted in the last book, there is a strong undercurrent of “Ayla invents patriarchy.” Not to give away spoilers, but she manages to convince everyone that babies are indeed conceived from sex. This very quickly leads to the men in the group feeling possessive over “their” babies, and talking about wanting to keep their mates monogamous.

There was a lot of repeated material – Ayla takes some bad herbs and goes into a sort of coma so Wolf has to go find Jondalar and bring him back so that the power of his love can revive her. And, of course, Ayla and Jondalar have a misunderstanding (sort of, Jondalar was also being a rather big jerk) and decide to just avoid each other and attempt suicide rather than actually talking. How they’ve managed to be in a relationship for as long as they have given their chronic reluctance to ever talk about their problems is an utter mystery to me. They haven’t grown at all as characters since Mammoth Hunters.

It was frustrating and, as with many of the later books in the series, painfully plodding. The whole narrative could have easily been condensed into a book a quarter of the size. Information was repeated, over and over again – not just information from earlier in the series, but often just from earlier in the book! The Mother’s Song, in particular, must have been repeated at least a dozen times, if not more.

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Chronicles of Ancient Darkness #3: Soul Eater by Michelle Paver

I really enjoy the prehistoric fiction that I’ve read (the Earth’s Children series and The Gathering Night pop immediately to mind), so when I picked Soul Eater up at a sale, I figured it’d be worth a try.

This is actually the third in a series, but there was nothing on the outer cover of the book to indicate this. All it says is that it’s part of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. It’s okay, though, because the book works perfectly well as a stand-alone. There are references to what has happened earlier in the series, but it’s done with tact and felt more like character backstory than a recap. There’s also a little bit of a cliffhanger to show what will come next, but this, too, is done very well and I never felt like I’d been cheated out of a satisfying ending. Honestly, this is a series done right. Really, really right.

Torak’s beloved wolf companion has been kidnapped. Unable to waste time getting help, he and his friend Renn head north, following the path of the kidnappers.

It’s an interesting story that is so much more than just a travel narrative (though they do get to meet a tribe from a different culture, and that was lovely). There are choices, there’s some character development, there’s action, there’s friendship… And, of course, there’s all that survivalist stuff that I love so very much.

I loved reading this as an adult, but I think that 12-14 year old me would have loved loved it. The main characters are around that age, and I think it fits right in with the likes of ShabanuA Girl Named Disaster, and other adventure stories aimed at that age group.

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Earth’s Children #5: Shelters of Stone by Jean M. Auel

Read: 7 March, 2013

In Shelters of Stone, Ayla and Jondalar have reached the land of the Zelandonii and Ayla must find her place among her new people.

As in books #2-4, Ayla is pretty much the most awesomest person ever. I lost count early on of how many times the reader is reminded that Ayla is totally gorgeous, and how many times other characters reflect on how amazing and wonderful and perfect she is.

The trouble is that the narrator makes these claims about things that we can verify for ourselves, and the things that the narrator says and the things that the narrator describes don’t always match up. For example, we’re reminded several times about Ayla’s fantastic memory, yet we’re shown her forgetting several things – things that I, with my pathetic ordinary memory, had been able to remember. For example, she forgets what she’s been told about the Zelandoni of the 14th cave’s prior issues with Zolena and has to be given the information a second time.

Another example would be when Zolena decides to start talking to Ayla about becoming Zelandoni while Ayla is trying to care for someone she cares very much about who has been gravely injured (no spoilers!), despite knowing that the idea of becoming Zelandoni is very distressing to Ayla. So even though we’re told that Zolena has a way with people, she seems to pick the absolute worst times to approach sensitive subjects.

And there’s a reason for the repetition. Ayla, as the foreigner, is the reader’s surrogate into the Zelandonii people. She conveniently forgets details for the reader’s benefit, not because it’s what her character would actually do. And this reflects Auel’s general lack of trust in her readers. Given the length of time between publication dates, I can understand Auel feeling that she needs to repeat details from previous novels – she can’t expect everyone to have read them in a fairly short period of time, as I have. But she repeats details from earlier in the same novel, as well. She seems to assume that her readers are incapable of remembering even important details. I don’t know if she was getting paid by the word or just genuinely thinks that her readers are idiots, but it made me feel rather insulted – and bored.

There’s less sex in this book than there was in Plains of Passage. In fact, there wasn’t a sex scene at all until all the way into chapter 5! This works with the plot, of course, because Ayla and Jondalar are now around people most of the time and can’t just drop trou and boink whenever they feel like it.

There is, however, plenty of lists about plants and animals that read more like encyclopaedia entries than parts of a narrative story. But it works. It’s what’s I expect from an Auel novel and I do enjoy the information she provides.

I find that Jondalar, in his exuberant monogamy (which is out of place in his cultural context) , makes me rather nervous. And Ayla’s focus on her theory about how pregnancy happens kinda feels like the big reveal in the next book is going to be “Ayla invents patriarchy.” I mean, yes, she’s biologically correct. But she seems to really be stuck thinking about her theory, and in this book, a social conclusion is introduced. Jondalar is having this existential crisis because women are the ones who have babies, so he feels useless, and the procreation theory is starting to take on a “don’t worry, we need men, too!” spin. I’ll just have to wait and see what Auel does with it, but it makes me nervous.

Anyways, I’m inching my way towards the finish line and just have one more book left in the series to read!

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The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone

Read: 31 October, 2010

One night, Bakar disappeared. His family is left alone, with only an old man to hunt for them. But then a stranger appears with a story of a great wave that killed his people, and this sets in motion a series of interweaving stories, told by the many voices of the People.

Set in prehistoric Scotland, The Gathering Night is a story about survival, as well as a community’s attempts to heal itself after a tragedy.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but to compare this novel to Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series. I think it might be blasphemy to say this, but I found that Elphinstone actually did a better job. Both authors try to convey a lot of “land knowledge” in their books, explaining the various things that can be eaten for example. But while Auel simply lists them in page after page of plant names, Elphinstone builds it right into the story.

The story itself is captivating. I’ve been very critical of books with multiple narrators in the past, but it works in this case. The set up for telling the story is plausible, and the narrative voices are distinct enough to feel like the story is really being told by several different people (but not so much that it feels like a gimmick).

All in all, I’d say this is a very worthwhile read. It preserves all off the appeal of prehistoric novels while avoiding many of the flaws.

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Earth’s Children #3: The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel

Read: 13 July, 2010

Leaving the valley, Ayla and Jondalar decide to spend the winter with the mammoth hunters, the Mamutoi. During the long winter, they are estranged and Ayla encounters a strange man with dark skin. The tribe’s shaman, Mamut, recognizes power in Ayla and adopts her into his hearth to begin her training.

Ayla has been something of a Mary Sue from the beginning, but it really comes out in this book. She has everything – the ability to hunt, the ability to be a shaman, perfect beauty, great strength, etc. She and Jondalar seem to be single-handedly responsible for inventing far more than seems plausible for just two people.

Ayla and Jondalar refuse to communicate, preferring instead to simply assume what the other must be thinking. As a result, they spend most of the winter angry at each other and wondering if the other still loves them. I find this kind of romance to be incredibly frustrating to read, because the obstacles are purely of their own making.

It was also a little disconcerting when Jondalar rapes Ayla, but we’re supposed to continue thinking of him as a good character because he only did it because he really really loves her and it’s okay anyway because she wanted it. Somehow, this makes it okay (even though she never consented and he believed, at the time, that he was raping her). Bit of a skewed moral sense there.

The book wasn’t totally bad. Learning about the Mamutoi was interesting, and Ayla’s interaction with Rydag (a half-Clan half-Other child) was excellent to read.

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Earth’s Children #2: The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel

Read: 19 June, 2010

Cast out from the only people she’s ever known, Ayla heads north in the hopes of finding the people she was born to, the Others. But when she finds no one after weeks of travelling and she feels winter approaching, she makes a new home for herself in a sheltered valley.

Loneliness soon sets in and, after killing a mare and discovering the orphaned foal, she is inspired to adopt an animal for company – something that no human has ever done before. Whinny becomes her trusted companion and hunting partner, and the two are joined by Baby, a cave lion cub. Meanwhile, Jondalar sets off with his brother to take a journey, following the Great Mother River all the way to its end. The two brothers are attacked by a cave lion, and Jondalar is saved by Ayla’s control over the animals.

Though not nearly as good as Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean Auel’s meticulously researched second novel is still fairly interesting. There’s a lot to learn about the Ice Age and its inhabitants (both human and non).

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Earth’s Children #1: The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

Read: 17 April, 2010

By far the best in the Earth’s Children series (I’ve now completed book 4), Clan of the Cave Bear is also the most content-dense. While the next three books will cover a fairly short piece of the saga each, mixed in with a whole lot of filler, Cave Bear tells a much larger chunk of the story.

A little girl named Ayla is orphaned when an earthquake takes her mother, but is adopted by Iza and Creb (medicine woman and Mog-ur, or shaman, of the Clan). The Clan is different from Ayla’s people, a different branch of the human tree, and Ayla must learn to fit in with people who learn by unlocking ancestral memories, and who have clearly defined gender roles. But Ayla has been chosen by the Cave Lion, a powerful totem who can help her survive with her new family.

The story is an interesting one. It goes beyond mere culture clash and into the realm of interspecies exchange. The Clan are different, physically, in the way they learn and in the way they communicate, and Ayla is reminded of that difference at every turn. But unlike many a space traveller, she was orphaned as a very young child and has no memories of her own culture, no previous imprinting to give her confidence when she comes into conflict with Clan ways. Instead, she is a blank slate that must bend itself into culture it was not designed for.

It’s a beautiful story with plenty of conflict and a good dose of love and hope. Ayla, though something of a Mary Sue, is still sufficiently endearing for me to root for her.

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Earth’s Children #4: The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel

Read: 23 May, 2011

Ayla and Jondalar continue on their journey back to Zelandonii lands, a journey that takes them just over a year. On the way, they revisit the Sharamudoi from The Valley of the Horses, meet a tribe that has enslaved its men, and have various other adventures.

For nearly half the book, Ayla and Jondalar are travelling alone. Rather than simply skip ahead to more interesting bits, Auel made the interesting choice of narrating two people walking for hundreds of miles. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything quite so boring. Perhaps sensing that “two people walk a really long distance” does not an interesting story make, Auel decided to splice in a sex scene every couple pages. They come in such rapid succession and are so gratuitous that even the most ardent romance novel fan couldn’t help but feel some burn-out.

Indeed, the first 300 or so pages could have been cut out without losing any story. There are a couple interesting incidents, but these could easily have been strung together with far less padding in between.

As a result, it took my nearly two months to read the first half of Plains of Passage. Once I passed that hump, however, and our travellers started meeting people, I read the rest in a mere two weeks – leaving me ready for the next instalment. Like a junky, I just keep coming back…

The point of the novel, beyond simply getting Ayla back to Jondalar’s people so we can deal with that drama, was for her to confront her past with the Clan and make sense of the relationship between Clan and Others. Like in The Mammoth Hunters, her heritage is outed a couple times and she must deal with the prejudice that brings. When the travellers meet the S’Armunai, they see what happens when Clan gender-specific roles are corrupted and brought into an Other society. Later, Ayla gets to actually meet a few members of the Clan (and a half-breed).

I very much enjoyed the interactions with the Clan, particularly the Clan encounter itself. I had a feeling that the book was moving toward a Clan encounter (even without cheating and looking at the map) and I was eagerly awaiting it. Of course, it didn’t happen until nearly at the very end, but it was well worth it.

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