Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Reindeer People - Megan Lindholm

The Reindeer People by Megan Lindholm is the first novel in her duology about Tillu and Kerlew. I read these books years ago in Dutch translation but I've since decided to get rid of the translations and get them in English instead. I'm considering doing this for the Robin Hobb novels I own in Dutch as well. Lindholm has been fortunate with her translators, but good as they may be, I prefer to read the original English versions. There are the last two of Lindholm's I've been able to get my hands on. I would very much like to read the one remaining novel, Cloven Hooves (1991) I haven't review yet, but unfortunately it appears to be long out of print (except of course, in Dutch translation.) If anybody happens to know where I can find a copy that doesn't cost me an arm and a leg for please let me know. But let's get back to the issue at hand.

Tillu is struggling to bring up her socially awkward son Kerlew among a people strange to her. While most people she encounters see Kerlew as an odd boy, one better avoided, the shaman of the people she is staying with, a man named Carp, thinks he might make a good apprentice. He also thinks Tillu would make a good wife. She feels he is too creepy and arrogant to be allowed to teach the boy, let alone touch her. Her position is weak however. Among this tribe, women do as they are told. There is only one option open for Tillu: move on. It is the start of a trek though a subarctic winter. Their environment poses a formidable challenge and worst of all, Carp is not about to let them escape.

The Reindeer People and its sequel Wolf's Brother were written before Lindholm switched to the pen name of Robin Hobb. One of the things I like about her Megan Linholm books is that under that name, she was a lot less constrained, resulting in novels that include epic fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, and in this case, prehistoric fiction. While I enjoy the Robin Hobb novels immensely, I do get the feeling that as a writer she is more bound to the Realm of the Elderlings than she would like. The many negative reaction to her Soldier Son trilogy, her only departure from the Realm of the Elderings as Robin Hobb, do not, I feel, do justice to the thematic leap she tried to make there. Maybe I should reread those books some time soon as well.

Some people classify The Reindeer People as fantasy although, apart from some shamanic rituals, there is very little in the way of fantasy elements in the novel. Lindholm doesn't specify where or when the story is set but it is strongly reminiscent of Sami reindeer herding culture. Some of the vocabulary she uses seems to point in that direction too, although she slips once and refers to reindeer as caribou.  The level of technology is bronze age, although bronze implements are scarce so far up north. I guess it could have been set further east, or a completely imaginary world but my money is on Scandinavia. It has the feel of a very well researched book but Lindholm was probably wise to not name the place and period to specifically.

I've been thinking about Kerlew a lot after finishing this book. He is a very difficult child. Anti-social, very self absorbed in a way. He often comes across as downright rude and doesn't seem to be interested in helping provide for their basic needs. Carp's influence over him only worsen this attitude as he feels a lot of chores are beneath his dignity as a shaman. Without his mother, he wouldn't survive a week in this unforgiving environment. He reminds me a bit of Gotheris, one of the characters in her Ki and Vandien novel Luck of the Wheels. Kerlew's attitude points more towards a disorder in the autistic spectrum though. It made me wonder if Lindholm had and specific disorder in mind what she created this character.

The people who Tillu encounters after fleeing Carp's tribe are semi-nomadic reindeer herders. Their way of life is being described in detail in this novel. Form the food and the preparation of it, to the trade with more southern people and the implements they use in everyday life. The Reindeer People and Wolf's Brother were originally intended to be one volume. The book was eventually split in two (not the last time in her career that would happen) but nowhere in the novel did I get the feeling she gets bogged down in unnecessary detail. I did feel that, while Lindholm found a natural point in the story to split the book, the end of this first novel is rather abrupt. It's one of those books where you absolutely have to have the sequel on hand, otherwise it might prove an unsatisfying read.

Although the story is centers around Tillu, one of the major characters, a man names Heckram, is of the reindeer people. Through his eyes we get to see a people with a rich culture, where status is an important aspect of one's position in society. Lindholm draws a sharp contrast between the people Tillu is coming from and the one she encounters on her fight. The position of women in particular is completely different. His people have strongly ingrained traditions but recently they have been suffering from misfortune and indecisive leadership. It leaves them wide open to those who don't mind putting their own interests or ego's over the common good. As strangers, Kerlew, Tillu and eventually Carp put additional stress on the situation. Something Lindholm means to build on in the next novel.

I remember liking these books a lot when I first read them in Dutch and reading the English original hasn't changed my opinion that much. What I don't remember noticing is the abrupt ending of this novel. I might very well have read them back to back the first time around. When Lindholm wrote these books she already had a few books under her belt and they are much more confident than the first Ki and Vandien stories. Apart from the slightly awkward split, these two novels are among the better ones she wrote as Megan Lindholm. It is of course not the Robin Hobb style, epic fantasy many readers are used to but if you care to step outside that genre, Lindholm has a few very interesting titles to offer. My personal favourite remains Wizard of the Pigeons but these two are not that far behind.

Book Details
Title: The Reindeer People
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 348
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-742544-0
First published: 1988

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