After their epic journey across Europe, Ayla and Jondalar have reached his home, the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, the old stone age settlement in the region known today as southwest France. Jondalar's family greet him warmly, but they are initially wary of the beautiful young woman he has brought back, with her strange accent and her tame wolf and horses.
YYYYYYYUCK. This is an atrocious book. Let's leave out the paleo-pornography and the unholy number of patents owed to heroïne Ayla. This is a chronicle of the most astonishingly mundane details of daily life in the Périgord during the late Paleolithic: the glances people exchange on the way to and from the toilet, the endless variations on names and ties people use during formal introductions, I could go on. It's an 800 pg. book. The first 300 pages cover three days. The first 500 cover a week. The whole book covers less than nine months. And at the end, nothing has happened. Oh, sure, some people got married and kids were born and people were hurt and died or were healed. But the book ends in the same place, geographically and socially, where it began.
Interpersonal interaction accounts for about 1/2 of the book. The other 1/2 describes the setting: technology, culture, environment, social structure. It's almost like a fictional ethnography, to the point where it includes a multi-page list of characters at the end, and I actually had to draw out some kinship diagrams to follow the action. (It's never good news when a genuine ethnography requires that, let alone a novel.) And what's particularly striking is how American the people of the book, and their culture, are, sometimes in ways that clash strongly with well-established characteristics of hunting and gathering, or even early agricultural, communities. The houses have living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. Most of the people in the community are solidly middle class, in outlook and lifestyle, but of course there are a few white-trash troublemakers to keep life from becoming too blissful. And I say white trash advisedly, because the paleolithic analogue of racism and miscegenation rears its ugly head.
And the style: oh, the style. It's bad. Really bad. At least every other chapter ends in a cliffhanger. Conversations are repetitious, to the point where I began to wonder about the intelligence of certain characters (well, really, the attention of the author and editor). Certain critical points come up repeatedly for discussion amongst the characters, but they only rehash the initial discussion rather than expanding and clarifying it. Also, rumor is that one of the reasons for the really long hiatus between this book and its predecessor was the composition of the Great Earth Mother poem, which appears several times in the narrative and then is printed as a sort of appendix. It's embarrassingly bad. It's a cloying, cliché-ridden composite of cultural convictions, real and made-up, from around the world over the last 20K years.
Having said all of that, I've choked my way through five of these things and I'll be d@mned if I'll let terrible wordsmithing stop me from seeing the series out -- even if she has reneged on her promise of a six-book series, now claiming it'll be seven. (Oh dear god in heaven...two more of these....)
This book hardly justifies a 12 year wait for some fans. It's boring, repetitive, and doesn't even offer anything significant to justify its incredible length.
What about all the buildup, the incredible conflict we expected? What about Zolena, Jondalar's former lover, being a possible factor between Ayla and Jondalar? Nope, she has to be incredibly fat and thus sexually undesirable, an effectively neutered woman. Jondalar's former fiancee is portrayed as completely rabid and malicious, when she's more than entitled to a little resentment of Ayla and Jondalar. Her dislike is somewhat warranted as the man jilted her, but she's depicted as a nasty, malicious evil witch.
The Zelandoni prejudice against the people of the Clan that we were all so afraid of? Dealt with in one tiny scene wherein all Zelandoni are ooing and ahhing over Ayla's sign language. Give me a break. That's disgustingly unreal, and a disgrace after all the hype about it for the past three books.
The "villains" are cardboard stereotypes. Those who aren't immediately enthralled by Ayla we surprisingly find are bad, evil people. I'm in mind of Frebec from "Mammoth" here...he was a fully developed quasi-villain whose transformation was within the realms of belief. No such luck here. They're totally bad and have the utter gall to try and humiliate or hurt dear Ayla.
Ayla makes no faux pas, saves every situation with perfect panache, enchants everybody despite her having been raised by (and having mated with) "animal flatheads"...which everybody conveniently accepts despite long-standing prejudice that's been harped on for the past three books. There is a word in fandom for a beautiful, incredibly talented, and universally liked perfect young woman. It's a "Mary Sue", and it is not a complimentary term.
Ayla's lost all depth she had in "Cave Bear" to become the original Cro-Magnon Mary Sue, perfect in every way. Every Paleolithic (and some Neolithic!) innovation can apparently be traced to her somehow: the atlatl (spear thrower), iron pyrite as a fire striker, animal domestication, the needle, the concept of conception via sexual intercourse being just a few.
I'm just waiting for her to invent the wheel. Though she probably will as First Among Those Who Serve the Mother (as she inevitably will get that position.) I much prefer the uncertain, definitely flawed and definitely human Ayla of "Cave Bear" instead of this prissy, power-hungry, perfect and boring woman. Give us a normal woman with fears, flaws, and all, instead of this laughable, inane Super-Ayla.
Jondalar is also disgustingly perfect, though he's basically just Ayla's stud and bodyguard. I'm also amused by the fact that the copious, purple-prosed love scenes seem to portray him as merely a one-trick pony. (So much for his prowess in the furs). This increasing trend towards nauseating perfection has annoyed me slightly since it began in "Horses" and has increased steadily with every book.
The characters have become cardboard, mere shadows of what they could have been, should have been. What they were promised to be when we first met them and they enchanted us. Ayla might well have been better served by being left as a somewhat tragic but hopeful heroine at the end of "Cave Bear", and Ms. Auel should have been remembered for that splendid masterpiece instead of cranking out ever worsening tripe ad nauseum, justifying it by, "It continues the storyline."
How about Ayla being an outcast from Zelandoni society because of her past? How about that causing strife with Jondalar, torn between love and his people? That was the book we should have received, the book that previous volumes promised us. Instead we find the couple happily married and accepted, with unquestioned incredibly high status, showering benevolence and help upon all who are needy. Is this supposed to be a parody, a farce?
This book has no conflict. This book has no action. This book has positively no character development. This book practically deconstructs any good done in "Cave Bear" and "Horses" In fact, this book has basically nothing to justify its length, its cost, or the time fans spent waiting for it. "SoS", the acronym for the book, is indeed very apt. Send out the distress call and load the lifeboats, because this one plummets to the bottom fast under the weight of its own bloated self-importance.
Review: By way of background, I read the first four Earth's Children books over and over again as a teen. (Well, the first three; I would read The Plains of Passage occasionally, but it wasn't a favorite.) Then, in 2002, The Shelters of Stone came out, and like any good fan, I bought it and devoured it... and then realized I didn't like it all that much, put it on the shelf, and haven't touched it again until now. I decided to re-read it in anticipation of picking up The Land of Painted Caves (because I am nothing if not a completist), but I'm sad to report that my opinion of it hasn't much changed in the intervening 8 years since I first read it.
The problem? Nothing happens. Seriously: Nothing happens. I was talking to a friend who also read it 5+ years ago, and her recollection of the book was "they get to Jondalar's home, Ayla has his baby, and then she challenges the head priest lady, right?" She's absolutely right, and that really does sum up the plot of the book. However, of the three events that she mentioned, the first one happens on page 1, and the other two happen within 50 pages of the end. The intervening 800 pages go something like this:
Ayla is introduced to someone new. New person is wary about being so near to a wolf. Ayla explains that they have to let Wolf smell their hand so they can be introduced. They do, and are charmed when Wolf licks their hand. Ayla explains the process of domestication. Then there's a good 3-4 pages about limestone rock formations or leather-making or the habits of the woolly rhinocerous, then Ayla is introduced to someone else. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That's an exaggeration, of course, but by the end of the book, it certainly felt like the case. Luckily, I've retained the ability to skim that I worked so hard to develop in the first four books.
The thing was, even when I was reading instead of skimming, I wasn't that impressed with the writing. Auel uses a third-person omniscient narrator, which drives me bonkers, and would frequently shift whose thoughts she was describing in the middle of the paragraph, which led to a number of confusing incidents of pronoun use where it took me several tries to figure out who was talking about whom. She's also got a bad case of tell (and tell... and tell) rather than show, and she will blithely text the subtext of even the simplest conversations, as though she trusts the reader to wade through pages on the mechanics of atlatls but not to understand what's going on in the most basic human interactions. These same writing tics were probably present in earlier books in the series as well, but at least then there was an interesting story to distract me. In this case, however, I just found them annoying.
To be fair, the things that make this series so unique are still present. Auel's a hell of a researcher, and this book (like the rest of the series) is absolutely packed with details about early human history that bring the setting to vivid life. Personally, it was made even richer by having recently read some non-fiction about Cro-Magnon cave paintings (with pictures). Because, if ever a series was calling out for an illustrated guide/companion book, this is it. So, while I did learn some things, and while there were admittedly some nice character moments (both from Ayla & Jondalar and from the newly-introduced and very large supporting cast), the repetitiveness of large chunks of the book mostly overwhelmed the rest of it. 2 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: The Shelters of Stone probably *could* be read independently, since Auel spends a lot of time re-hashing the events of past books (sometimes with long verbatim quotes disguised as flashbacks). However, I think people would be better served reading the others and just giving this one a cursory skim.
I'm also not going to summarise the plot- because other reviewers have already done so and believe me, after reading this book I am already so sick of the constant repetition of aspects Jean M Auel's world that I could scream. What I enjoyed most about her earlier books in the series was her descriptions and originality- but these DO NOT need to be churned out over and over by the time the later books come along. Readers are pretty familiar with her world by now after reading four of her other books and it really grated on me the (by now) turgid explanations of hunting, flora, fauna and the overly long ways that Ayla greets and is greeted by strangers. To be honest, instead of tying in with the plot, they felt as if they were there merely to fill up pages and this book is already far too long so they just weren't needed.
Also, Ayla has now changed immeasurably from a strong willed character with flaws into a woman who is just so seemingly perfect she is immediately loved by everyone who encounters her. She is a sad parody of the fantastic protagonist she was in the earlier books and I found her hard to believe in any more and disappointingly, not really caring about her either. Oh, and a round of applause for the author for making every other woman that Jondalar had ever been attracted to in the past a complete troll now that Ayla was by his side. Brilliant plot device, really. Thoroughly believable.
I also didn't care about Ayla and Jondalar's constant `pleasures.' Yes, ok, they have a lot of sex. We get it. Writing about it in such clunky, mind-numbing detail is just a waste of ink- as are a lot of the pages here, if I'm honest. Another factor that really cheesed me off were the other (one dimensional) characters shocked reactions whenever they saw Ayla with the horses or Wolf. Jeez, could Auel have repeated any situation more? I understand that it was unusual to see a human with a fairly tame animal, but having Ayla introduce the animals to *every* second character just seemed like another insipid way of increasing the word count.
There are just so many more criticisms I have of this book but it would make this review far too wordy to list all of them (like the novel itself). My overall impression of this book? A waste of paper and ink that read like a particularly dry academic text; nothing of any worth really seemed to happen whatsoever.
I have to say that whilst I *will* read the next book (someday) because it seems a shame not to given I have got this far, I am in no rush to do so and I will certainly not be buying a copy of my own- I fear it would be a real waste of money.
*This review also appears on Amazon.co.uk*
And then there's the sex. In panting, sweating, moaning explicit detail. I think it's the only reason to read the series after the first book. It's horrible, trashy caveman porn, and that's why I've been a devout reader and have been sure to keep my library current with the latest installment of the series.
Characters: Superwoman Ayla (prehistoric for Mary Sue) and proto-French hunk Jondalar, plus the latter's entire clan. Every character seems to be a stereotype; there is nobody truly innovative and actions are never surprising in any way. Character development mostly falls flat.
Style: Lots of descriptions of prehistoric life, flora and fauna, down to rock formations and climate patterns. The dialogue is often stilted and drowned in descriptions. Far too many far too similar insert-slot-a sex scenes.
Plus: descriptions of prehistoric life.
Minus: No plot, no character development, no style.
Summary: A new low for the series and only worth reading if you're either highly interested in a novelized treatment of prehistoric everyday domestic life, or determined to see the end of this series. Or interested in stone age porn.
Auel is particularly sharp in her characterisation of Ayla, the woman who is foreign and strange in this new land, and her heroine's clashes with her new-found people are handled skilfully. The reader is immersed in another world, one whose every detail is skilfully evoked, while the writing has all the colour and vividness of Auel's previous books
It had the potential to be interesting because of some of the more “modern” characteristics of some of the people in the story. Marona could have been interesting in a Dynasty sort of way, but she wasn’t. She was all pissed off at first that Jondalar had left all those years ago without mating her as promised. And she took it out on Ayla by playing a practical joke on her. Ayla brazened it out though and it backfired on Marona. After that she disappeared. No big confrontation. No backbiting. No good old-fashioned catfight. Damn.
Despite these flaws, this is a brilliant series of novels, one that I will undoubtedly return to throughout my life. But I can understand the point of view of those who gave up after the first book or two thinking it was all too much just about "beautiful heroine saves life of handsome hero and they travel together across the known world meeting people who tell them how wonderful they are". Those who think that should persevere, but I can see why they probably won't.
But please let there be another one!!!!!!!!!
3 STARS is stretching it ... But I've read worse than this.
But it's not as enjoyable as any of the previous books, nor would it be accessible or enjoyable at all if you haven't read them. Despite the fact that a lot of space is devoted to rehashing stuff from the previous books to try to make it accessible.
This is a very descriptive book, and it bogs down in the description of the minutiae of prehistoric life, but what really bogs it down further is the simple talky-ness of it. I mean, really, how many times do we have to sit through reading Ayla being introduced to another Zelandonni with all of her attached titles or demonstrating her discoveries. The action, at least what there is of it, moves very slowly, revelations come very early and are easily accepted by most of the other characters (in contrast to what you've been lead to believe in previous books) - yet a lot of time is still spent talking about those same, accepted, revelations.
To sum up - for fans of the previous books ONLY.
For those who have followed Ayla and Jondalar since the beginning, the story is a bit repetitive and slow-moving. However, if you are unfamiliar with the series, the book can be read as a stand-alone novel. It continues to give the reader an in-depth perspective on the struggles and beauty of pre-historic life and culture. Overall I enjoyed this book and the series itself. I would recommend it to anyone interested in pre-historic cultures.
Her first sight of her new home thrills her - it's the place of her visions!
Ayla begins the process of learning to understand her new people, her place among them, and their very strange customs... and wondrous crafts that she longs to learn. Suddenly realizes the journey is over... she CAN learn as many of these skills as she desires!
But can she show her adopted people skills of her own? Will they accept her? What will her new status be?
All the while fighting a destiny she DOES NOT want.
When has destiny ever cared what you want?