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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