Monday, November 5, 2012

The Valley of Horses

After absolutely loving 'The Clan of the Cave Bear', it was a given that I would move on to the next book in Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series, 'The Valley of Horses'. With this book, my short break from manga continues to reward me with another great reading experience.

Having been given the death curse by new Clan leader, Broud, Ayla is exiled from her son, Durc, and the only family she has ever known. Determined to not let Broud win and go on living, Ayla sets out on her own in search of The Others. Other Cro-Magnon people like her, who her adoptive mother, Iza, urged Ayla to seek out. At the very same time, far away, two Cro-Magnon brothers set out on a journey of their own. A journey of adventure and discovery, following the path of the Great Mother River. As the two parties go on their separate journeys, they encounter a life time of grief, as well as happiness, completely unaware that their destinies are intertwined.

In my review of 'The Clan of the Cave Bear', I mentioned how much I loved the aspect of Ayla making new discoveries on her own. Well, the circumstances take that aspect that I enjoyed so much, and crank it up to 11. Ayla is cast out of her Clan and forced to live on her own. She can no longer depend on anyone but herself. Thankfully, she rises to the occasion, and no longer held back by the strict clan traditions, she experiences an explosion of creativity that is fascinating to watch unfold. From new hunting techniques, to better ways to make fire, it was such a joy seeing her figure out all these innovations on her own. Almost like a proud parent watching their child learn and grow. Auel described Ayla's thought process in great detail. So much so that as she pushed the limits of her mind to solve a new problem, I felt like I was right there with Ayla, and though she couldn't hear me, I was cheering her on. I can only hope that as I continue to read this series, that I will get to see Ayla impress me more with her great capacity to learn and grow.

We've got few new characters introduced in this book. Most noticeable is the young, handsome, Cro-Magnon ladies man, Jondalar. Jondalar, along with his brother Thonolan make a great addition to the series and bring a lot to the table. Their quality of dialogue was almost shocking in contrast to the interactions of the Clan in the previous book, who stifle emotions and don't talk about unnecessary things. Jondalar and Thonolan laugh and cry give us the whole range of human emotion and interaction that we can relate to. For that, they become very likeable and I found myself enjoying their journey as much as I enjoyed Ayla's. Not only that, but their part in the story brought a great sense of adventure that wasn't present in the previous book. The Clan did everything just to live with hardly any aspect of life you could call "fun". But Jondalar and Thonolan purposely set out with adventure in mind. And though their life was no less dangerous, we know it is their choice, so even in the ups in downs they face, there was a sense of entertainment for me as a reader.

Another new experience for this book was the strange relationship forged between Ayla and two animals she encountered in her isolation in the valley. One of which was with a wild horse that Ayla raised from an orphaned foal. Ayla's isolation was interesting to watch in itself, but the introduction of some unorthodox companions really kept things fresh and exciting. Obviously she couldn't talk to the animals, but she could communicate with them. And not in the same way she communicated with her clan, or The Others she had yet to meet. So it is a unique experience for the reader and their presence influenced and evolved Ayla as a character as much as any human character.

Speaking of relationships, this book brings us relationships of the romantic sort. It really read like a romance novel in places and felt so different from the almost unloving vibe of the first book. And that's not a bad thing. I'm a sucker for romance, and this book delivered in just the right dose. And we're not talking the tender, innocent, reserved, romance. We get full on, realistic, steamy romance, complete with extremely detailed and graphically described sex scenes. I can kind of see why this series made #20 on the ALA's Most Frequently Challenged Books list. But I don't think it is gratuitous smut. I think it's realistic, called for, and works within the context of these highly detailed books that describe even the most minor aspects of daily life. It's only natural that the sex scenes be covered in as much detail as the colorful landscapes Auel paints with her words. And as I said, it has the added benefit of being steamy and fun if you like that in your literature.

At first, the change in writing structure from the first book was jarring. Bouncing back from Jondalar's perspective to Ayla's. But as their travels brought them closer and closer together, and both yearned to find that special companionship, I realized the brilliance of the structure. When they finally met for the first time, I knew I loved this book. It was the perfect build up. I don't want to say that I liked this book less than the first. I find them hard to compare because this book isn't merely a continuation of the story. With this book, it evolved into something different. It offered a different reading experience that I can't really compare to the first. I'm glad for that change and I hope the next book can offer me another new experience. As things stand, there's no question that I want to continue following Ayla on her journey, and I will be reading the next book, 'The Mammoth Hunters'. And I'm happy to say that I recommend 'The Valley of Horses' just as strongly as I did 'The Clan of the Cave Bear'. Not that I have to. If you read and liked 'The Clan of the Cave Bear', you'd be quite the masochist to abstain from this great read.

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