The Land of Painted Caves is the sixth and final volume in Auel's Earth Children series. It has taken her more than three decades to complete the series, the previous part, The Shelters of Stone, appeared in 2002. Auel has sold millions of books in the past thirty years, this is definitely one of the big releases of 2011. The publisher even pushed back the publication date so that is could be released in a bunch of different languages at the same date. Although her first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear is highly regarded, the rest of the series is not as well thought of. And with reason, Ayla's story is taken far beyond what could be considered realistic, with human technological and social development making huge jumps whenever she is around. I must admit, I mostly read this book because I wanted to finish the series. My expectations were not all that high. Despite that, Auel still managed to disappoint me.
We pick up Ayla's story shortly after the end of The Shelter's of Stone. She has been accepted into the Zelandonii, the people of her mate Jondalar, and has made such an impression that she is one of the high status members of her new Cave. With status come expectations and obligations. The spiritual leader of the Cave sees in her a successor that could one day be the most prominent among all the Caves who consider themselves Zelandonii. Training to become a Zelandoni is demanding though, Ayla finds it hard to combine her training with spending enough time with Jolandar and their daughter Jonayla. She needs to find a new balance between her family live and the spiritual needs of the Cave.
This book has so many problems I don't even know where to begin. It struggles with the legacy of the five previous parts for one. Ayla has developed into a prehistoric Mary Sue and this is not easily set aside. Nor does Auel try, in the first chapter we get a nice description of Ayla's superhuman senses and that is just the beginning. Just about all of Ayla's major achievements are repeated in the book and Auel adds a few more. The suspicion that having sex is in fact related to having babies is still niggling in the back of Ayla's mind. When this fact is revealed to the Zelandonii, she sets a chain of social changes in motion that will lead to monogamy and marriage. I've always had a bit of trouble accepting that prehistoric man didn't make the link between sex and procreation. It seems terribly unlikely to me but Auel needs it to support her model of Zelandonii society. Having the entire plot of the book devoted to this issue wasn't likely to make me enjoy this book. I guess given the developments in previous books it was inescapable though. Interestingly enough, the question whether or not this change is an improvement, doesn't receive a lot of attention in the book.
A second major problem with The Land of Painted Caves is the fact that is has such a thin plot that it doesn't justify the large number of pages Auel needs to tell the story. This book is so well padded that I could believe it would be able to survive in an Ice Age climate. There are countless repetitions of events in previous books, all neatly summarized, inserted into the story. I think the author could have had a little more faith in her readers, most of them will have read the previous books. The repetitions don't stop there unfortunately. Surprise at Ayla's animal companions is included in every description of a new group of people she encounters. Ayla's accent is commented on over and over again. The Mother Song, the Zelandonii story of creation, is repeated half a dozen times, in part or entirely. There are countless lengthy introduction rituals, something Auel herself seems to get tired of, later on in the book most of them are mercifully abbreviated.
Another thing repeated over and over are descriptions of cave paintings. Ayla visits just about every major archaeological site in the region and Auel lavishly describes the images found in those caves. Auel probably put in too many but I must admit, that despite the fact that some of it was superfluous and slowed the plot of the first part of the novel to a crawl, I liked this aspect of the book. I've been in the part of what is now France once and saw some of the sites Auel describes back then. The paintings are an impressive sight. As usual, Auel has done a lot of research on this topic and it shows in the writing. Her knowledge of the period is very impressive and even if it does not always make for a good story, I deeply respect the time and effort Auel put in researching these books.
Another criticism that is usually directed at books 2-5 in this series is the copious amount of explicitly described sex. Personally it never bothered me but together with the general Mary Sue characteristics of Ayla, it does make some parts of these books read like a romance novel. People who objected to it, will be glad to hear the sex is mostly gone from this book. Despite the focus on procreation, Ayla has other things on her mind. I guess young children were a good contraceptive in the Pleistocene as well.
For the die-hard fans of this series, The Land of Painted Caves will probably be an acceptable offering. For me, the books shows so many flaws and has such a meagre plot that I had some serious trouble pushing though the last part of the book. If you are desperate to find out how Ayla's story ends, you might want to read it. For the less obsessed readers, I suggest you skip this one. Despite the impressive amount of research that is the foundation of the series, The Land of Painted Caves is one of the weakest books I have read this year. I suspect this book is going to disappoint a lot of readers.
Title: The Land of the Painted Caves
Author: Jean M. Auel
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
First published: 2011