The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel
Bantam, 17th printing, 1985
Genre: Alternate history, pre-historical fiction, fantasy
Jacket copy: HERE IS AN UNFORGETTABLE ODYSSEY INTO A WORLD OF AWESOME MYSTERIES, into a distant past made vividly real, a novel that carries us back to the exotic, primeval world we experienced in The Clan of the Cave Bear–and to the beautiful Ayla, the bold woman who captivates us with her fierce courage and questing heart. Cruelly cast out by the ancient Clan that adopted her as a child, Ayla now travels alone in a land og=f glacial cold and terrifying beasts. She is searching for the Others, a race as tall, blond, and blue-eyed as she. But Ayla finds only a hidden valley, where a herd of hardy steppe horses roams. Here, she is granted a unique kinship with animals enabling her to learn the secrets of fire and raw survival–but still, her need for human companionship and love remain unfulfilled. Then fate brings her a stranger, handsome Jondalar, and Ayla is torn between fear and hope–and carried to an awakening of desire that would shape the future of mankind.
Book report: Are you fucking serious? No, for reals, as not good as this book is, that jacket copy is absolutely terrible. Someone ought to be ashamed of themselves. I mean, Ayla wasn’t cruelly cast out by the Clan, it was Broud. They had no choice in the matter. And, well, nevermind. The whole thing is just silly. The important thing here is that Jean Auel goes off the proverbial deep end in the book, which is unfortunate, because it’s only the second (and weakest) of the series.
Don’t get me wrong, I was all about the Earth’s Children series in seventh and eighth grade. One of my friends, either Tina or Kym, was way into it, too, and we would make snide jokes about Jondalar’s prowess. That was right when The Plains of Passage came out, and more than any of the others, that book is all about fucking. Excuse me, I mean Pleasures. Yeah, that’s right, that’s what Auel calls sexing, Pleasures with a capital pee. If that doesn’t drive you batty, though, the novel itself will.
It begins well enough, with Ayla heading for the mainland beyond the Clan’s peninsula, and for the Others who might be there. Unable to find anyone, she settles in a valley for the winter, figuring to stay alive until the next year, when she can try seeking out her own kind again. As Ayla settles in to her new abode and goes into full survival mode, across a continent two young men leave their home to go on a pre-historic Grand Tour. Jondalar (OMG, he’s got violet eyes, blonde hair, and is like catnip to women–and did I mention his massive tool? because Jean M. will until you want to barf). Jondalar and Thonolan (love these names) encounter new cultures of people not all that much unlike themselves, and along the way, Jondalar not only Pleasures hordes of women, but also is exposed to flatheads, aka Neanderthals, or Clan. This is significant because later he will meet up with Ayal, and will need to learn a Very Important Lesson about humanity.
Meanwhile, back in her valley, Ayla is single-handedly discovering how to use flint & iron pyrite to start fires and also domesticating animals, while inventing the wheel as a finale (not really, but she might as well). By the time Jonadalar meets up with her and teaches her spoken language, she has become a virtual goddess (or donii, as Jondalar would irritatingly say/think over and over again). Their relationship at this point becomes the most annoying thing on earth. You see, Jondalar, because of his incredible skillz in the furs aka at Pleasuring–and despite his immense manhood–is a popular choice for First Rites, that is, deflowering young women in a ceremonial fashion, and teaching them to like doing it. Now, though he enjoys boning pubescent girls, he’s always saddened by the fact that it hurts them (fallacy alert), and that they also can’t take his massive tool. That’s right, one of Jondalar’s complaints is that no woman can fully take his penis. I wish that were a joke. But Ayla, not only is she beautiful and brilliant and a woman who has had sex before, but she is also a semi-virginal naif because she’s never experienced Pleasures or “civilized” company. To Jonadalar, this makes her the ideal woman, because he gets to “teach” her Pleasures and also symbolically deflower without any of the restraint that he would show to a virgin. Whoa.
Jondalar’s fetish for Ayla as child-woman left a nasty taste in my mouth (and what’s with the horse porn?), but it’s not the only problem with The Valley of Horses. For one, it’s actually kinda boring, even when you leave out the constant interior angst Jondalar and Ayla vomit up at all possible times. And also Auel goes a little crazy with the “This is our Earth Mother! Treat her with respect or we’re doomed!” weird eco message that manifests in the series post-Clan. And Ayla morphs from a character into a Mary Sue with no real faults (and not to mention, an Aryan posterchild). You could absolutely skip this installment in the series and not really miss a thing (especially since she recaps the story about five times in each later volume). The only good parts are the descriptions of the surrounding lands, animals, and plants.
Read also: The Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel, Reindeer Moon by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Front cover: Fine concept, indifferently executed. Everything looks kinda harvest gold and ugly. Way too much excitable text. Front cover adjective count, sans blurbs: 3 (“astonishing bestseller,” “breathtaking saga,” “magnificent woman”). Hmm.
“Oh, woman,” Jondalar said. “You may not talk much, but you are lovely when you smile!” The maleness in him began to see her as a woman, as a very attractive woman, and he looked at her that way.
Something was different. The smile was still there, but his eyes … Ayla noticed that his eyes in the firelight were deep violet, and they held more than amusement. She didn’t know what it was about his look, but her body did. It recognized the invitation and responded with the same drawing, tingling sensations deep inside that she had felt when she was watching Whinney and the bay stallion. His eyes were so compelling that she had to force herself to look away with a jerk of her head.