Audie Award Finalist, Science Fiction, 2014
There is Thorn, a shaman himself. He lives to pass down his wisdom and his stories - to teach those who would follow in his footsteps. There is Heather, the healer who, in many ways, holds the clan together. There is Elga, an outsider and the bringer of change. And then there is Loon, the next shaman, who is determined to find his own path. But in a world so treacherous, that journey is never simple - and where it may lead is never certain.
Shaman is a powerful, thrilling and heart-breaking story of one young man's journey into adulthood - and an awe-inspiring vision of how we lived 30,000 years ago.
©2013 Kim Stanley Robinson (P)2013 Hachette Audio
For a long time I've been hoping to find a good piece of scholarship dealing with the peoples of the ice age, specifically the people who painted the caves in France and modern-day Europe. I know that there isn't all that much to go on, however, I assumed there would be at least a few people in this field of archaeology, anthropology, and sociology who could at least offer some solid, historical, factual knowledge on what these people were like, how they lived and survived, what they might have possibly believed.
Sadly, I never really found a work of non-fiction that I felt was suitable - either because the time period was too recent (Mesopotamia and the fertile crescent peoples) or the books were new-age, wack-a-doo nonsense with pictures of burning crystals superimposed over photographs of cave paintings.
About ten years ago I picked up a book called Red Mars because someone recommended it to me and I wasn't even 50 pages into it before I went back to the bookstore to buy the sequels Green Mars and Blue Mars. In those books Kim Stanley Robinson embarked on a grand thought experiment concerning colonizing the red planet. His book wasn't filled with any aliens (though the people living on Mars grew quite distant from the people left on poor Earth), and neither was his book filled with any unnecessary action or typically 'science fiction' plot points. The books were clearly written in his simple yet intelligent voice and they dealt simply with people and how they interacted with each other. In fact at times you almost forgot they were even on Mars.
And that was the real key: Robinson is able to draw you into his worlds slowly, carefully, and hardly without you even noticing.
This book is another grand thought experiment, but instead of an alien planet he writes about our own alien planet tens of thousands of years ago when we even lives side by side with our evolutionary ancestors, the Neanderthals. But the book is never strange, it's always about people, a boy named Loon being trained to be a Shaman, and most importantly it's about survival. This is a world where people have to stick together to stay alive but could very well take place even today in the wilds of Siberia, or remotest Canada, or Patagonia because aside from their perspective on how the universe works, they are no different than we are. They love, they fight, they create art, and they die.
In a way Robinson takes away a lot of the romantic mystery of what living during the ice age would be because it really isn't that different from how many people live today. People are people all through history and just because they lived a long time ago does not mean they are some alien species from Mars.
Above all, however, this book is a supreme work of imagination (and I'm sure research, too based on the many people he acknowledges at the end). We can never know what our ancestors were thinking when they crawled into caves and painted on the walls, but we do know that they were good at it and that when people are good at something they probably enjoy doing it, too.
Robinson follows very simple A to B logic in making the story very believable - if you need to tell time, how do you do it without a clock? Or how do you know what ice to step on or avoid? Or how do you treat a wound? Robinson is always turning these simple questions into plot points to advance the story and I get the feeling he had fun trying to think the story through and how the characters would act and survive given such limited tools and knowledge.
As for historical accuracy, well, I can't say how accurate the book is, and I doubt anyone really could, but it feels authentic and that's good enough. The story is very simple, there is no epic battle or major intrigue, and there is really only one major change of location for added drama, but mostly it's about being immersed in a world very different from our own but also very similar to our own - like looking into the eyes of a Neanderthal and seeing a glimpse of ourselves or looking at the beautiful cave paintings and seeing the vast and recognizable reservoir of human talent and ability over the millennia.
This is a wonderful book that while not earth shattering in scope, is quite an achievement in imagination.
Over the years since I read KSR's Mars Trilogy, when I have told others about it, my descriptions of that masterpiece have tended to include the phrases "science fiction, but in a class by itself" and also, "akin to reading history, but written 300 years in the future."
While I have enjoyed other books by KSR, none have been able to measure up to the Mars Trilogy - until now. Shaman, too, is a masterpiece. It is nothing at all like Robinson's other novels, which is a good thing - and testament to the author's abilities.
What makes it so great? First of all, the characters. In Robinson's other works, character development has tended to be something he seems to work at, but perhaps doesn't come naturally to him. With Shaman, his ship has come in. Creating characters who would have lived 30,000 years ago and making them believable is quite an accomplishment. In Robinson's depictions, they are at once Unknowable, mysterious and profoundly ordinary. His use of everyday speech for their dialogue, rather than some wholly imagined, affected "tribespeople" speak (whatever language was spoken 30,000 years ago will likely remain forever completely unknown) is a stroke of brilliance. It's easy for the reader to grasp that the characters are speaking in their own tongue, but with colloquialisms that are synonymic in our language. For example, they might have had an equivalent for "oh, fuck;" or even the quirky meaning behind our present day "mama mia" makes the (single) use that phrase not seem odd, or out of place.
The second bit of greatness, is that these characters, their actions, and the world they inhabit - both Natural and Spirit - come truly alive. Never again will I look at an ancient cave painting or other ancient art in quite the same way. In Shaman, by books end, Robinson has created an emotionally charged, believable bridge between those artistic creations, their makers and the present moment. This achievement by Robinson is no less than High Art itself. He's created Magic, in which the past is brought to life; for this reader, I am forever changed for the experience.
I admit, I almost didn't finish listening to Shaman. The first third of the book is very slow-going. Hours of description, both of the exterior world and Loon's thoughts about his environment and his body (ahem), almost defeated me. It was kind of like hanging around a thirteen year-old who has one topic of discussion: him or herself. For hours.
But, I slogged on and by the break between parts one and two, you couldn't have pried my iPod out of my clutching fingers. I was hooked. This is not a fast read, but it is good - if you can make it that far.
I had almost given up on Kim Stanley Robinson. Although I love the Mars Trilogy (warts and all), his subsequent work seems to have degenerated as his brilliant ideas are too often let down by plotless pontificating and lengthy passages that read as though he is typing up his research notes. After the execrable disappointment of "2312", I had sworn off him.
But the good reviews of Shaman made me take a risk - and it is indeed wonderful, one of the best things Robinson's done in a long time. Although this is not a book with a lot of plot, and much of the writing is clearly based on immense amounts of research, the structure is clear and focused, and the descriptive writing is always clearly tied to developing the relationships between the characters. The novel plunges you into an alien world and all the myriad details serve toward making that world feel intensely real. And the central relationship of Loon and Thorn is a sensitive and moving depiction of the value of passing on knowledge.
Having read other attempts at depicting this period - "Clan of the Cave Bear" and "The Inheritors", I found this one by far the most convincing and absorbing. I particularly liked the way Robinson rendered the Neanderthal character - he's succeeded in creating a figure that is intelligent and humane and yet not *quite* human.
I recommend that readers watch Werner Herzog's documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" before reading, as the book is clearly inspired by it and it will enrich the cave-painting scenes.
The narrator is so good and makes the novel flow so effortlessly that I cannot thing of anything to say about him - the highest compliment possible!
Highly recommended to all my friends who are lovers of the written and spoken word, of ancient human and art history, contemporary visual arts--also anyone who simply enjoys an adventure story.
I read Robinson's Mars trilogy and enjoyed those books very much, but although that was years ago so hard to compare, I felt this book more deeply. Part of reason for this may be that I am a painter, as is the protagonist of the story, and I really identified with the descriptions of his creative process.
I especially liked Graeme Malcolm's performance of the herb woman, Heather. Male narrators aren't always successful in creating a female voice free of caricature or condescension. Malcolm gives us a cranky, tough old woman full of complaints and bitterness who shines with intelligence, curiosity and generosity.
The reader's performance was wonderful, his thoughtful and understated reading afforded plenty of space for my own emotional responses. Many moments were deeply felt, I cried more than once. The first time was early in the story, when Loon is starting his initiatory walkabout, a description of the thoughts running through his mind which the reader performs in an almost casual tone, almost but not quite tossed off, a series of questions ending the wonder--why do people die?
I've been interested in paleontology since receiving a beautiful picture book about prehistoric people as a child. I've often felt I could feel quite at home if I were somehow transported back to the stone age. So I really eat up stories and images of this time. Recently, I watched Werner Herzog's fantastic film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which shows some of the places and things described in this story. After reading Shaman I feel more than ever a kinship with the ancestors who lived and created in those faraway times.
Not a 5 star, but a solid, thoughtful 4 star. Away from the book, I found myself thinking about how it would be to live as a human so exposed to the brutalities of nature. This to me is a big factor in how I measure the value of a book or a story----does it make me think a little bit differently, does it transport me to a different world in my imagination?
This book did. I think it would be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys speculative fiction. (Sci-fi, etc.) Compared to most in those genres, this is superior writing.
One of my favorite genres, of which I would tout The Good Earth, Pillars of the Earth, and the works of Mika Waltari, as being the cream of the crop. This book is just as good.
Give me science, or give me death!
The books deals well with mysticism without being mystical, and uses a subset of English so the reader feels the alien ways these early people without being cryptic.
This is a sort of speculative fiction, because the main character is a human living tens of thousands of years ago, along side Mammoths and Neanderthals.
Don't know, I am legally blind
The central character, Loon, because the author paints him as completely credible and yet heroic as he learns to survive and ultimately thrive.
A gift which good readers have, of maintaining the individual, voices, mannerisms and attitudes of the various characters in the novel. He brings each one to life.
When the protagonist finishes his initiation into manhood by surviving in the wilderness with nothing (not even clothing), on his own for 20 days and the reader discovers he is only a young teenager.
This book was very hard to put down or should I say pause, as I listened on my Ipod. I was sorry when it was finished.
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