While I am a great fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, I have mixed feelings about his most recent novel, Shaman. It is a rite of passage novel set in Paleolithic France. The greatest strength of the novel is its ability to look at universal themes. In addition, it is well-paced and has an interesting plot. As with the Mars Trilogy, I enjoyed Robinson’s descriptions of the environment. On the other hand, I am very skeptical of the accuracy of the description of Paleolithic life. Also, I found myself irritated with the all-pervasiveness of sexuality in the first part of the novel. At the risk of sounding like a prude, enough is enough, aren’t there some other interesting things to describe.
In the beginning of Shaman, a very young man, Loon, sets off on a “wander,” where he spends a period of time alone in the wilderness. It is to mark his official apprenticeship as a shaman. Yet, Loon is earmarked to be the apprentice by default; his deceased father was the true apprentice to the tribe’s shaman, Thorn. Loon’s interests lie elsewhere. Loon goes against Thorn’s wishes and marries a woman, Elga. Her past is a bit of mystery. When another tribe steals her, Loon tries to rescue her, with tragic results. By the end of the story, Loon has agreed to take on the role of the new shaman.
The very opening of the story opens with the words “We had a bad shaman.” The very end of the story could have read “We had a good shaman.” While the story centers around Loon, the reader slowly pieces together why Thorn was a good shaman. It speaks to the universal experience of not realizing how good a teacher or a parent was until they have passed or they can no longer understand the gratitude that we hold in our hearts.
The story touches on a number of other universal themes. Most of the story focuses on the universal themes of trying to live up to other people’s expectations and trying to become one’s own person. Another major theme is regret. Thorn is forced to make some very difficult decisions, doing the very best he can in a nearly impossible situation. The decisions literally haunt him to the end of this life. Yet another theme is that of otherness. Are the “Old Ones” human? The individuals kidnapped from another tribe are not considered human. Lastly, there is the universal theme of trying to fill another person’s shoes after they are gone.
Shaman doesn’t describe much that is supernatural. It contains very few instances of Loon or Thorn practicing what we typically think of as “shamanism.” In fact more of the story describes making cave drawing.
While I’m glad that I read Shaman, it is definitely not on my list of books that I would most likely recommend.