Book Review: The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel

This second book in the ‘Earth’s Children’ series picks up immediately after Ayla’s expulsion from the Clan (Neanderthal) at the hands of its cruel new leader ‘Broud’. Taking Iza’s advice, she heads west toward where she expects to find her own kind, the Others (humans), and after a tentative struggle to survive the ravages of the elements, eventually ends up in a serene valley where she intends to collect her thoughts and learn some basic survival skills. Ayla becomes Ray Mears for a few years.

These elements of the novel are incredibly well researched, though somebody without an interest or knowledge of the period may find it tedious, but I love this aspect of the series. The tedium is used to good effect, showing the intensity and hard work of her existence through minute detail, and it is reminiscent of Neville’s loneliness in Richard Matheson’s ‘I am Legend’ (though whether this is intentional is another matter). Despite being nearly 600 pages, it never feels overwritten or drawn out and the richness of the descriptions of daily life for Ayla is animated and very much full of passion. She spends several years surviving in this manner though as time goes on and she can better put her skills to use, it becomes slightly easier.

Jondalar is surprisingly likeable and human society and religion in Ice Age Europe emphasises a real difference between humans and our Neanderthal cousins. Of course, this is all conjecture because there are no writings or other clear indicators about what our ancestors believed; but it works for Auel and that is good enough for me. It also works for the story and in the end, that is all that really matters.

Where the book falls down though is (once again) the mere hint of the esoteric. I don’t mind fantasy elements in novels like this, but Auel is incredily half-arsed about it. There is a lot less of it in this than in the first but it does feel slightly out of place and superficial with no real point. Again, I would have preferred either the fantasy to play a bigger part than it actually does or that it is omitted entirely.

The other problem with this is the seemingly unending list of inventions of Ayla, who, amongst other things tames a cave lion. Amusing at first, it becomes increasingly silly. At this rate, this palaeolithic supermodel-cum-warrior-princess will be inventing the combustion engine on her death bed.

At times Ayla and Jondalar are portrayed as a little too perfect, too wonderful and beautiful and the increased focus on their sexual tension and then sexual aerobics towards the end makes me worry that this series is going to be less historical drama and more ‘Bella and Edward: The Flintstones Years’ the longer it goes on.

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