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BOOK REVIEW: Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

REVIEW SUMMARY: A coming-of-age tale set in Earth’s paleolithic period.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Following apprentice shaman Loon, Shaman is the ambitious story of a young man’s journey from boyhood to adulthood, with all the associated love, heartbreak, and adventure you’d expect.

PROS: Incredibly detailed; an immersive experience.
CONS: Slow pacing; characters do not feel real until about halfway through the book.
BOTTOM LINE: A slow but creative trip into the past that’s worth the required investment.

Where most speculative fiction explores the what if‘s of the present and future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman takes a step back…30,000 years into the past. Winters are cold, summers are late and short, Neanderthals share the land with early humans, and the cycles of life go ever on. There’s a joke about Canada in there somewhere, I’m sure…

Things start with Loon, the apprentice shaman, being sent naked into the wild for 2 weeks to complete his wander, one of the steps to becoming a shaman. We spend a lot of time in Loon’s head, sharing his thoughts, his dreams, his bitterness about being stuck in the cold, the sense of adventure he feels at knowing he’s going to survive his wander and return to his tribe victorious. The wander itself seems a pretty clear metaphor for growing up; you start out naked and without any of the tools you need to survive, and as you go, you get better and stronger and wiser.

But for all the time spent with Loon in the first chunk of the book, he feels very incomplete, very shallow. He doesn’t demonstrate much personality. The one thing I’m sure of is that he has sex on his mind a lot, but considering he’s a 12-year-old male, that doesn’t exactly make him stand out. He’s not quite a blank slate, but he doesn’t feel much like a person either. Many of the characters (perhaps intentionally) feel like this through a large portion of the book; they are a representation of a child’s view compared to an adult’s view. If so, kudos to the author for that subtlety, but I think it might go unappreciated by many readers.

Once we get considerably further into the novel and see a larger cast of characters, things start to come together. About the first half of the book is very “a year in the life of,” making the daily and seasonal lives of Loon’s tribe members known — the hunt for food, the starvation months of winter, the desperation as winter ends but the abundance of summer has yet to begin. Robinson expresses this quite well, and has really put the effort and research into making the tribe a believable society. After the rhythms of life have been established, we move to much more action-oriented territory, with Loon falling in love, getting married, and subsequently having his wife kidnapped. He makes the decision to go after her and steal her back, and is himself kidnapped by the same northern tribe.

The last half of the book goes much faster than the first half, and the events are definitely page-turners: Loon gets kidnapped; Loon nearly dies of cold and starvation; Loon escapes with his wife; and the interaction between Neanderthal and human. Where the first half of the book felt largely like set-up, the second half takes you on a grand adventure and is well worth the slow beginning. Characters have had the time to be developed and fleshed out, and you can really feel the ever-present tension and excitement of the situation.

Patience is definitely required when reading this book since, as I said, things don’t really seem to get started until halfway through. There’s a lot of essential set-up, but at least it’s shown rather than just told. And there’s a real poetry to Robinson’s writing that makes sitting through the first half more bearable. It’s an investment, and in the end it’s a worthwhile investment: a trip into the past and some of the early stages of human society, filled with imagination and creativity. An anthropological treat, to be sure!

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