I’ve owned Kim Stanley Robinson’s SHAMAN since it came out, but hadn’t read it because I was still writing the Walker Papers, and regardless of how different his shaman and mine were likely to be (which was very, given that his book is set 40,000 years ago), I didn’t want to be reading about somebody else’s shaman while writing mine. :)
SHAMAN is one of those books that’s either going to work for you or it isn’t, I think, although a lot of KSR’s work can be summarized that way. I mean, I’m a tremendous fan of his and he still doesn’t always work for me.
SHAMAN did, though. Not because of the similarities between his shaman and mine, of which there was exactly one (Loon, our hero, is also a reluctant shaman), but because I thought he did a really nice job building a prehistoric society. Or several, rather, as Loon goes on an adventure to the North, and we also get a glimpse of Neandertal society, all of which I thought worked together as a pretty solid and believable set of societies. And having studied as much about shamanism as I have, I very much liked his depiction of the shamanic magic and duties, which are vastly more realistic than mine.
I had some problems with it. The young male narrator’s obsession with sex got a little tiring, and the nature writing didn’t sing the way I feel it does in the Science in the Capitol trilogy (although really, I think that series is exceptional in its nature writing, so any comparison is by necessity a little harsh), but the bit that really aggravated me was that I couldn’t figure out what continent it was taking place on…which I just realized is because I misplaced the origin of horses. I had it in my head they were like potatoes and tomatoes, originating on the American continents, but no, that’s backwards. Okay, it was me, not the book, and my confusion is all my own fault. Everything ELSE pointed to it being Eurasian in setting (in fact, I’m pretty sure I should be able to set it more preci–well, I can, because I know where the cave he used is, which is part of why it was confus–anyway.) Yeah, okay. I’m just an idiot.
There was a section-long chase scene in SHAMAN that was one of the best I’ve ever read. The only thing I can even think to compare it to is the chariot race in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, which it’s tonally completely different from, but it was genuinely edge-of-the-seat reading, which is pretty stunning in a book.
There was also a moment where I thought he was going to turn the entire book on its ear, and I confess I would have been *delighted* to see it happen. I’ll illuminate behind a cut, because it’s a spoiler, but broadly speaking it’s like that moment in Winter Soldier where the heart of every woman watching leapt with joy and then collapsed again into, “Oh. Oh, well. I mean, that’s okay too, but…but it’s not as cool as it looked like it was going to be.”
It also made me tear up a little–twice!–which I think is a first for a KSR book. I was more emotionally invested than I thought I was, which is kind of wonderful.
Overall, not easy to recommend, but I find very little of KSR’s work easy to recommend. I thought it was worth the journey, though. In the end it’s a fairly powerful coming of age story, and I enjoyed it.
The spoiler: there are–well, several–main characters, but the three of importance here are Loon, our protagonist, who is a somewhat reluctant shaman-in-training; Thorn, his teacher; and Elga, his wife, who is from another tribe and quite a political player once she becomes part of this tribe. Thorn doesn’t like Elga at first (or rather, doesn’t think shamans should be married and disapproves of her on general principles), but he comes around for very good reasons. And there’s a moment of approval, very late in the book, where I really *genuinely* thought for a moment that Thorn was going to throw his reluctant apprentice over and train Elga as the tribe’s shaman instead.
It didn’t happen, but I really *truly* believed for just a moment that it was going to, and that would have been…so fucking cool. Loon grows into the role and it’s all fine and everything, but there’s just this one moment where there’s like this great shining light on Elga and I had the sense that Thorn abruptly realized that actually she would have been a far better shaman than Loon and…yeah. For a glorious instant I thought that was going to happen.
I would have fucking loved the book to pieces if it had, man.