Title: The Land of the Painted Caves – Book 6 in the Earth’s Children series (official website)
Author: Jean M. Auel
Genre: Historical fiction, romance
The gist: A fairly Utopian look at prehistoric ice-age cave-dwelling societies wrapped up in a romance and sprinkled with unusually accurate anthropology and archaeology facts.
Initial attraction: I’m pretty geekily interested in archaeology and anthropology, and I’ve been reading this series since I was a tweeny Cassandra. The series is impressive for its in-depth look at pre-historic life and is based on extensive research from Chauvet Cave which is home to some of the oldest known cave paintings (an interesting documentary on it, titled Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is currently available on Netflix Instant for your streaming pleasure). Although I’m guessing most people read the series for the romance.
Cover art: I like it, although I don’t know if it would make me pick up the book if I didn’t already know the premise. I do prefer the silhouette view of characters to the current trend of displaying a torso with the head and/or limbs cut-off. I was mostly looking at a different cover while reading though, because I was listening to the audiobook version which features this cover (below). I like both covers and don’t really have any complaints about the art.
In this, the extraordinary conclusion of the ice-age epic series, Earth’s Children®, Ayla, Jondalar, and their infant daughter, Jonayla, are living with the Zelandonii in the Ninth Cave. Ayla has been chosen as an acolyte to a spiritual leader and begins arduous training tasks. Whatever obstacles she faces, Ayla finds inventive ways to lessen the difficulties of daily life, searching for wild edibles to make meals and experimenting with techniques to ease the long journeys the Zelandonii must take while honing her skills as a healer and a leader. And there are the Sacred Caves that Ayla’s mentor takes her to see. They are filled with remarkable paintings of mammoths, lions, and bears, and their mystical aura at times overwhelms Ayla.
But all the time Ayla has spent in training rituals has caused Jondalar to drift away from her. The rituals themselves bring her close to death, but through them Ayla gains A Gift of Knowledge so important that it will change her world.
The best part: The research based archaeology and anthropology, hands down. While much of it is obviously speculative, Auel did extensive research on the daily life and living conditions of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal people which includes detailed descriptions of everything from hunting weapons to plant life.
The worst part: Everything is re-capped again and again, sometimes even within the same chapter. It is extremely repetitive. As it had been several years since I’d read the previous five books I definitely needed some re-capping but sweet mother of Elvis it was overdone. The events from the previous books were explained again and again and again and again with no new insights, almost as if Auel just forgot that she had already been there and done that, which maybe she had because of the 10 years it took to write. The whole book really could stand for some extensive editing because it wasn’t just the previous books being recapped but sometimes events from the previous chapters of this book were recapped or just repeated over and over. For instance, the introductions between people meeting were long and unnecessarily drawn out and many of the plot points had been done in previous chapters or books. The other thing that bothered me was how extremely formal the characters are to each other, even after they’ve been living together for five years. They often act as if they’ve barely met which strikes me as completely unbelievable.
Characters: The book centers around Ayla and Jondalar, although it may have been more interesting had it focused on their daughter, Jonayla (who reminded me that Renesmee is not the first terrible mash-up name to grace my reading pages). Ayla continues her education to become a spiritual leader but doesn’t seem to have a character arc or to have learned anything in the years she’s been living with Jondalar’s people. They basically have the exact same relationship that they did throughout The Mammoth Hunters.
Plot: This is what I call the Mid-Life Crisis Plot. You know the one – He loves her and only wants to be with her for the rest of their lives but she’s working nights and going to school during the day so he hooks up with the skanky chick down the street that everybody hates instead of just waiting for his completely devoted and faithful wife. There’s nothing wrong with those sort of plots, but they aren’t my thing. In this case though the plot doesn’t ring particularly true for the characters though, because Ayla is supposedly adept at reading people but never manages to read the guy she’s been practically attached at the hip to for years and years. On the other hand, I didn’t pick the book up for a fast paced and action-heavy plot, I got it for the adventure of daily life in a pre-historic world.
Setting: This is what I love about the series, Auel’s ability to bring prehistoric life among mammoths and saber-tooth lions to life with extremely accurate details. Even so the 6th book fell a little flat for me. This could be because descriptions of paintings in caves are not as interesting as pictures of cave paintings or because there wasn’t as much interaction and detail of the ice-age mega-fauna, but I think a large part of it was because of the social setting rather than the physical one. The Zelandonii are portrayed as a near utopian society where everyone is (almost painfully) rational and problems are dealt with in such a sophisticated manner that it makes it unbelievable – not because prehistoric man couldn’t be rational or socially sophisticated but because we still can’t run a society that smoothly after millions of years of trying and learning from mistakes. One of the things that made me love the series when I began reading it way back when was the sense of “Holy crap! These people could have been just like us.” They were emotional and intelligent and had their own society with customs and traditions that were followed, but that was taken too far in the final installment making a too-perfect society that was just not believable for me.
Writing style: As I’ve mentioned, I kept reading this series for the archaeology not the story telling. If it weren’t for Auel’s excellence at research I’d probably have tossed this book over my shoulder about a third of the way through it and never looked back. I did enjoy the book overall, but I wish the author spent more time studying the mechanics of story-telling.
“Neither does Auel engage much in the sort of speculation that fueled her earlier books. There, she wrote about successful interbreeding between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, a notion still considered controversial when those books were published, but which has since been supported by advances in DNA research… despite her previous speculative forays, Auel doesn’t do much riffing on contemporary theories regarding ancient art” – Elizabeth Hand for Washington Post
“Let us distinguish between intentional, helpful recaps, and repetition which begs for an editor’s red pencil. Had the dialogue been cut in half, the plot may have picked up a bit. This reviewer grew weary of the redundancy of characters introducing themselves to each other over and over. Excerpts of the “Mother’s Song” thrown in to comment on a cave painting seemed superfluous and annoying. Even more boring were the constant tea-making scenes. Yet, we come away from the book with a vivid picture of everyday prehistoric life.” – Holly Weiss at BlogCritics.org
You might also like: If you haven’t read the entire Earth’s Children series you should start with the first book, Clan of the Cave Bear.
Additional books by author:
• Book 1: Clan of the Cave Bear
• Book 2: The Valley of the Horses
• Book 3: The Mammoth Hunters
• Book 4: The Plains of Passage
• Book 5: The Shelters of Stone
Publisher: Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House
Release date: March 2011
Purchase the book here. (affiliate links pay me a small commission off purchases through my links so you can support my writing with no change to the price)