Great Sky Woman by Steven Barnes

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Great Sky Woman is the first book by Steven Barnes I’ve ever read, and before this I’d hardly heard of him. Which is shameful, since he’s been publishing since before I was born. My only excuse is that he collaborated a lot with Larry Niven, whose work I’ve never really cared for. In any case I missed out, because this book is excellent.

It’s set about 30,000 years ago, at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The setting is vivid, and the culture of the Ibandi people is rich and carefully developed. The prose style is direct and readable, and totally committed to the perspective of the Ibandi. The narration doesn’t involve figurative references to anything outside the experience of the protagonists (a pet peeve of mine in historical fiction and books clearly not set in “our” world), and aside from the introductory foreward, there is no “outside” reflection on the place of the Ibandi in human history. I read this book soon after listening to the audiobook of Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear (well, I got about halfway through it and then just wasn’t motivated to listen to more - I’m glad I got it for free from the library), so that was a natural point of comparison for me. But where The Clan of the Cave Bear is very consciously about how its events presage the future of the species, Great Sky Woman is immersed in the immediate reality of the protagonists.

Those protagonists are T’Cori and Frog Hopping, two young people of the Ibandi. I found them to be complicated and believable characters, very much members of their culture but still understandable and sympathetic. T’Cori is a girl being raised by the dream dancers, women who are spiritual leaders and healers. Frog Hopping is a boy growing up to be a hunter in a typical village. Their stories start separately, but as they grow to adulthood, their fates become connected. The story starts off rather slowly, though the setting and characters are interesting from the very beginning. It did take me much longer to read the first few chapters than to finish the rest of the book once I got into it. But once T’Cori and Frog Hopping reach adolescence, things begin to change for the Ibandi, and the plot picks up. Their final ascent to the top of Great Sky is harrowing.

The book is first about T’Cori and Frog Hopping trying to find their places among their people, and then when the future of the Ibandi is threatened, the struggle to find a new way of living for their people. It’s also about spiritual truth, storytelling, and how, as Barnes says in the introduction, “story created humanity.”

Great Sky Woman didn’t have me up all night reading because I just couldn’t put it down, or imagining conversations in my head with the characters because I want to be their friends forever, but it is a great story. Thoughtful, and complex, and beautiful. I plan to read more Steven Barnes for sure.