The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel
Jean M. Auel‘s Earth’s Children is one of those series that people often say you should stop reading after the first book. I’m generally too curious about the sequel to follow that advice, so naturally I’ve read all six. Most of them are entertaining at some level but none of them are anywhere near as good as the first book. After the huge success of The Clan of The Cave Bear (1980), Auel produced two sequels relatively quickly, followed by three more which took her significantly longer to write. Apart from my recent reread of the first book and reading the recently published sixth novel The Land of Painted Caves, it has been many years since I’ve read the others. I thought it would be interesting to see how the second novel, The Valley of Horses, held up under a reread.
After being banished by the Clan, a group of Neanderthals who have taken in and raised her as one of her own, Ayla is now forced to follow her adopted mother’s advice to go in search of her own people. That is easier said than done, however; in the sparsely populated steppes of what is now the Ukraine, Ayla searches for months without finding another soul. As the summer wears on, she has to make a difficult decision: continue the search and hope she’ll find people or settle somewhere and prepare for a harsh winter alone.
Meanwhile on the other side of Europe, brothers Thonolan and Jondalar of the Zelandonii set out on a journey east to find the estuary of the Danube, or the Great Mother River as they think of it. Thonolan has traveller’s blood; he will not be tied to the familiar territory of his Cave in what is now France. For Jondalar, however, things are more complicated. He will be drawn back to his Cave, but the love for his brother and his unease with an expected mating drive him on the journey. Whatever his destiny is, he will have to travel a long way to find it.
The Valley of Horses introduces a lot of the problems that would mar the later books in the series, and quite a few of them are tied to the character of Jondalar. He isn’t just any man, he is THE MAN. Tall, well built, supremely talented and hung like a horse, he is the dream of any prehistoric woman. If only he could find a woman who can match all that perfection. Fortunately we know of one living alone in a valley on the other side of the continent. With Jondalar, the explicit sex scenes also enter the narrative. Personally they didn’t bother me — Auel could probably write decent erotica if she put her mind to it — but not all readers will appreciate it.
To balance Jondalar’s perfection, Ayla’s transformation from tall, ugly and strange girl into wonder woman continues. Just about anything in this novel Ayla does is highly improbable. The odds of surviving alone on the Ice Age steppes of Europe for several years are minimal, something Auel herself points out several times. Ayla not only survives, she thrives. In the process she domesticates horses, learns how to ride one and use it as a pack animal, invents stitches and a quicker way to make fire, and tames a cave lion. It’s way too much to be believable.
Both their stories do have their strong points, however. Jondalar meets a number of different people and his struggles with language, local customs and taboos are at times very amusing. The variations in the Great Mother religion, which archaeological evidence suggests was widespread in Europe at the time, are also very well done. Auel of course has had to guess what it actually entailed, and later on the details regarding human reproduction will form another questionable recurring theme in the series. In The Valley of Horses that particular detail doesn’t bother me too much yet.
Another element in this story I enjoyed is Auel’s description of the Ice Age environment. In The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla lives in a wetter and more sheltered climate. In this novel she moves into the steppes that will be the setting of the next two books as well. Descriptive passages of this environment will return many times in the series and not all of them are necessary, but in this novel the environment is still new and the details on climate, meteorology and ecology are fascinating (to someone with my interest in these matters anyway). The hunt for that one large animal Ayla needs to survive her first winter alone is also one of the stronger elements in the story. The way Auel points out just how much work hunting and processing the kill is, and how difficult it is for someone to complete the task alone and with Stone Age tools, lends a bit of realism to the story that the rest of the novel sorely lacks.
I guess you could say the novel has its ups and downs. Despite the copious amount of research Auel has done on prehistoric life and culture and Ice Age ecology, large parts of the book read like a romance novel. There are still things to enjoy in The Valley of Horses for those who liked The Clan of the Cave Bear but it is nowhere near as good. Where The Clan of the Cave Bear couples meticulous research with an emotionally moving story and interesting, if not always likely, speculation on an extinct human species, this novel has to do without that special blend of ingredients, and unless you like romance novels, it does very little to replace this mix with one equally fascinating. All in all, entertaining is the best I can make of it; calling it a good read would not be accurate.