Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel is a foray into the scarcely read world of prehistoric fantasy. It is a raw story, stripped of knights and kingdoms, cities and armies. Instead of these tropes, the story focuses intensely on human relationships and quests of necessity, for food and fire and an old kind of honor that chivalry poorly mimics. The Ice Age societies in this book have neither the time nor the patience for swashbuckling rogues, vainglorious heroes, or damsels in distress. This is a place where a surplus of food is considered a luxury, women are equal to men, and every action has a very real and deep consequence.

It is often the case in fantasy that the setting functions as a third character. This is true for Shaman in a way unlike any other fantasy I’ve read. Living in the wild, Loon and his tribe are a small part of a massive, untamed world beyond their understanding. At night, outside the light of fire, the world is pitch-black and unforgiving. Man is small and death can come either slow or fast but equally inexorable, whether compounded from a small injury or from a lion’s pounce. This stark, bitter, brutal world of shivering fireless nights and starving treks through unknown lands is understood through animistic beliefs. A tribe’s shaman mitigates between the spiritual and physical realms, sating spirits, prophesying the weather, and remembering rituals and lore. A purveyor of culture before the written word. The main character and shaman-in-training, Loon, has a spiritual relationship with nature that defines the course of his life’s journey.

Kim Stanley Robinson is a subtle craftsman. His tale takes time to weigh on you, like a thick stone sinking to an ocean floor. Without warning the depth of the story, of the characters’ lives, will bring you to tears. It is a slow build with an exceptional payoff, and as it is with KSR’s many award winning novels (Red Mars, 2312), you will need to push through the beginning chapters of Shaman and trust that the he will take you somewhere worth going. Although Shaman is most certainly fiction, it’s crafted from interpretations of real-world archaeology. The turns of the story, from wild sojourns to great festivals and tribal conflicts, are all the more meaningful because they give us a glimpse into the experiences of our common ancestors.

KSR, like Patrick Rothfuss, writes much of his stories between the lines. He does not hit you over the head with insights and eureka moments, trusting instead in the power of readers to interpret meanings for themselves. At its core, it could be said that Shaman is the story of a young man learning to become a shaman, just as The Name of the Wind is of Kvothe becoming a “hero.” But even that rings slightly false. Both books are at once simpler and more complex than that. They tell the story of a man’s life, of survival, of love and relationships, harsh realities, and transformations. Yet, in Shaman, there are many missed opportunities.

The story could certainly be more exciting and seemingly faster-paced without cheapening the plot or discoloring the characters. The setting has incredible potential for violence and drama and the author, while throwing open the doors and showing how to make it compelling, left many mouth-watering ideas unused. It’s not in KSR’s style to use flashy scenes or flamboyant plot elements, and in consequence, there is a slight hump to overcome before the story takes hold. What this pacing does is sacrifice flashy, in-your-face drama to punctuate quiet moments of desperate, gnawing hunger and stormy nights, and I think it’s those moments that KSR wants the reader to feel and remember.

Shaman is introspective and lacks the flash and boom that makes books like The Heroes and Prince of Thorns so compelling. This is true. Yet readers will enjoy the story as long as they go into it with patience and a willingness to fall, rather than be dragged, into the adventure. KSR is quite a different writer compared to the modern giants of fantasy. You will probably dislike this book if you want sword and sorcery action, multitudinous cliffhangers, and pure escapism. If, however, you’re in mind for a pondering, survivalist, coming-of-age story, you’ll want to buy Shaman immediately.


By CptNemo

3 thoughts on “Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson”
  1. Just finished reading this a few days ago, and while it was slow and felt very “a year in the life” at times, I still found myself really enjoying it. Not sure if I’d read it again, but I’m glad I at least read it once.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and informative review. We read many books with blasts of magic and swordfights, but one that focuses on prehistoric-strength hunger might well be engaging. How much shamanic magic occurs in this story? Why is it considered a fantasy?

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