It is a time of frigid winters and shortened summers, when early man walked the Earth alongside Neanderthals, when the distant past began to shape the design of the future. It is here, 30,000 years in our history, that Kim Stanley Robinson delves into the life of mankind, and explores the coming-of-age story of a young man named Loon, in the ambitious novel SHAMAN.
Stripped of all his clothes and belongings, Loon is set loose into the wilderness and winter on a "wander," one of the most challenging and necessary events of his young life. If his wander is successful, Loon will be on his way to claiming the title of Shaman, a great title amongst his people. Freezing and unable to start a fire during a storm on the first day, it seems that young Loon has his work cut out for him. But he refuses to give up. He curses and wars with feelings in his head as he doggedly pursues the means to build a fire, then weave clothes out of bark. He is determined to succeed, and so he does.
"The novel really provides insight into Ice Age living and lures readers down deep into minute details about land and weather and hunter/gatherer culture. The science is brilliant, and the cultural study is superb."
Loon returns to his tribe and, as time progresses, makes his mark as a man, succeeding as a hunter and taking a wife. The tribe struggles in the hardships of primitive life, hunkering down to outlast bone-chilling and lengthy winters, to emerge in the spring and seek out game, working hard to prepare all they need before the winter comes again. And things are thrown more into chaos as Loon's wife, Elga, is kidnapped by a party of "northers." Loon then makes the fateful decision to go after her and steal her back. In the process, he ends up launching the last third of the book into a rousing action adventure that makes the whole trip worthwhile.
SHAMAN is a good book. It could have been a great book, and Robinson is certainly capable of great books. The novel really provides insight into Ice Age living and lures readers down deep into minute details about land and weather and hunter/gatherer culture. The science is brilliant, and the cultural study is superb. Where it ultimately falls is in those same details that make it so fascinating. Robinson paints and explores such a vivid world, but his character creations that populate it are flat and uninspired, so much so that it seems they are merely included in the book because they have to be there.
This is not to say that SHAMAN is to be avoided. Quite the contrary, the book is one that readers can enjoy as long as they prepare themselves to be extraordinarily patient and let the story slowly unfold. If you can make it to the halfway point, then it will reach the hook point and you will be turning pages much quicker. The events of the final half and the fate of the Wolf Pack, as well as Loon, Thorn and Elga, make up for the slowness of the beginning. All the way, Robinson will captivate with his examination of the world that we never saw. Until now.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on September 27, 2013