The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel
The Mammoth Hunters suffers from some of the same problems that earlier books in the series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, and The Valley of Horses, did. A confused, poorly written presentation of sex, overly detailed descriptions of Ice Age life, and too little conflict make the novel much longer than it needs to be and much less fun than it could be.
Again, the novel is full of textbook-like passages explaining Ice Age weather patterns, craft-making, animals and their behaviors, and many other elements of setting. I like learning while I read, and the information is interesting. Auel did plenty of research, which I admire. These passages make me wonder which of these details are fictional and which are backed by anthropological evidence? Many of these scenes have so much detail that it’s hard to imagine that there is hard evidence to support every minor point. For example, we may know that Ice Age people used certain tools, but do we really know the exact process they used to make the tools? Sometimes I wondered, in Auel’s writing, which came first, the research or the scene? Did she do research to back up creative ideas she already had, or did her research drive the writing, so that she included things that she learned about regardless of their impact on the main plot?
Auel has a sad tendency to over-explain characters and their motivations. Rather than allowing readers to infer a character’s feelings and motivations, Auel breaks them down in excruciating detail, often using three sentences where one would do. In the process, she rarely tells readers anything they didn’t already know or couldn’t have guessed, while drawing out scenes unneccessarily, and contributing to the length issue. It’s almost like she doesn’t trust her readers to put two and two together. Maybe this issue is related to the teacherly tone she adopts for the anthro textbook passages; once you’re writing in that mode it might be hard to phase out of it, even for sections that don’t need so much detail.
One result of this overexplaining is a bunch of textbook examples of bad sex scenes. Auel uses both horrible euphemisms and horrible anatomically correct words, as well as a plethora of cliches and generic descriptions. Given the horrible prose of these scenes, they should never have made it through edits. I find them particularly objectionable because only very few sex scenes needed to be in these books: the plot-relevant ones. In the entire series, I count about one sex scene per book that contained information that changed the plot. The sex only needs to be described in detail if something about the particular way the couple has sex is important to the plot, if they communicate something new to each other that they could only do in that way. Very few of the book’s sex scenes fit this criteria, so they should have been cut. If the mere fact of two people having sex is what’s changing the plot, then the typical soap opera trick should be used: show the couple getting into bed, let us know they’re going to do it, then fade to black. I don’t say all this because I hate sex scenes; in fact I really like well-written sex scenes, which are usually ones that both use great prose and show a relationship evolving. Decently written sex scenes that don’t change anything about a relationship or the plot can be ok, but if the scene is poorly written it had better contain plot-relevant information to justify putting me through it.
Besides the awful sex scenes, most of the rest of the book consists of happy episodes of life in the Lion Camp. Ayla cures the sick and learns the ways of her new people. There’s just not enough conflict (and that’s a pet peeve of mine). One reason there’s so little conflict is that the main character, Ayla, is very nearly perfect. Her only flaws or mistakes come from her upbringing and cultural training, not her character. It’s kind of grating after a while how everyone loves her and she never does anything wrong. (Well, some people don’t like her, but it’s clear that the only reason is that they’re bigoted against the Clan, and they change their minds eventually.) All she ever does is invent useful tools, share innovative knowlege, and save people’s lives. Seriously, I wish I’d kept count how many children’s lives she’s saved over the course of the series. The number must be ridiculous. It became kind of predictable, and it started to feel like Auel was recycling events from the previous books. There’s a cry for help and you know Ayla is about to save someone, and it will make people accept her even though she’s so unusual. And once again, we’re asked to believe that one person first invented the needle and thread, and the horse bridle, and first domesticated a wolf.
The little bit of conflict there is comes mostly from a love triangle between Ayla, Jondalar, and a new character, Renec. But really, the only thing keeping this conflict alive is the fact that Jondalar and Ayla don’t talk to each other about it. If they took five minutes to express their true feelings when the misunderstanding began, then it would have been settled in the first third of the book and wouldn’t have gotten nearly so bad. Their refusal to talk to each other goes on so long that it’s just frustrating, and not in a good way. I have little sympathy for conflicts like this, caused only by poor (or worse, nonexistent) communication. It’s hard to root for a couple when the problem they’re having is based on a serious deficiency in a skill they’ll need to survive and get along over the long term. I much prefer to watch a couple fight, rather than to see them ice each other out for months on end.
Another weakness in the conflict is Auel’s continued manipulation of sexual mores in the service of her plot. The conflict begins when Ayla sleeps with Renec basically because she doesn’t know how to say no when a man asks her for sex, because in the custom of the people who raised her, women always consent as a matter of course. Then after that she stops sleeping with him because she learns that she can say no. Later, Jondalar has forceful sex with her, and tears himself up thinking he raped her, but really she consented. If it weren’t for the need for Jondalar to be angsty, he would have realized that during their sex she was helping him and not resisting, and that she would not have said no or called it rape because of the same mistaken belief that caused the conflict in the first place. There’s also a kind of long passage where a shaman explains sexuality to a soon-to-be-initiated young woman, and I really don’t know what to make of it. The superstitions are patently absurd, but I don’t know if they’re meant to show how progressive this ancient tribe was, or how repressed, or just how weird. Basically, Auel makes her characters believe whatever her plot needs them to believe, when it comes to sex, rather than letting the plot evolve organically from a coherent belief system.
At this point I’m pretty invested in the series, so I’ll read the next one, The Plains of Passage. It seems like this book will bring Ayla to Jondalar’s people, but I hope future books will eventually bring her back to the Clan, because I’m interested in seeing what happens when she sees Broud, her rapist, again. My prediction is that the Clan is suffering because of Broud’s terrible leadership, and Ayla will save them. Because she is perfect and saving people is what she does.