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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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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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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