Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Hurray, another favorite book! Lately they’ve been coming fewer and farther in between, but this one was a real winner. It’s about a boy living in the paleolithic era approximately 30,000 years ago. He’s an unwilling Shaman’s apprentice, and for almost half the book he’s irritated with his shaman and hoping to be released of what he considers the burden of this apprenticeship. Then it changes.
The story is really, really simple: boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy loses girl to some bad guys, boy tries to rescue girl (and I won’t tell you what happens next). Unlike too many contemporary books, the plot is slow to unfold and doesn’t follow the usual tv-episode type button ending and cliff hanger for every chapter. It’s indulgent and deliberate, a style that seems to consciously shun the film-formula that too many contemporary writers, even literary writers, try to reproduce in order to be eligible for a Hollywood deal. And yet it engages the reader on a deep level, for the beauty of the world that we’re introduced to, the stunning accuracy of the descriptions of the grounds, the hunting, the fishing, the beliefs and traditions, the simplicity of a live that revolves around having enough food not to starve, keeping warm, making it to the next year.
For the first part of the book, I didn’t like Loon, the main character, because he was such a teenager, rebellious, infantile, mean to his care-takers, and very, very horny. I was worried that this was going to spoil enjoyment of the story. But he grows up, and the narrative deepens as he slowly makes the change from juvenile to adult, and finally, to shaman — that is, a wise adult who seems to grasp meaning below the surface of things.
In the end, I was touched by how deeply the personal relationships evolve throughout the narrative, and when some of these characters meet with tragedy I was weeping like a child for them. Considering the sparing language, and the nearly non-existent plot, I feel like the author performed some kind of word magic to make this happen.
The writing is clean, simple, yet somehow lyrical. I especially loved the chapters where we get a cat’s point of view on life, and a wolverine’s.
I was absolutely astounded by the research that must have gone into this piece, and loved to learn all the details about how our ancestors hunted, made weapons, clothes, etc.
Only two minor criticism: the author doesn’t seem to handle rendering the feeling of multitudes very well. The whole time I kept trying to imagine the size of the tribe but the way it was written felt like there were only six people in it. The other criticism is that sometimes the author spent too much time describing simple tasks, like an inordinate amount of pages describing Loon painting something on a cave wall, or the overly descriptive details of the old shaman’s trek across the continent.
Also, I would have liked to know where this took place, if Europe or the Americas or where. I imagine it would have been really difficult to convey this, considering it’s written from the point of view of people to whom such distinctions did not matter or even exist, but I did find myself constantly trying to guess where we were and when we were.
Nonetheless, by the time I got to the end, I wanted to read the book all over again. Loved it.
PS: There is really no magic in this. If you’re looking for shaman spooky stuff, you won’t get it, although there are some ghosts.