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 #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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