This book, the first in the Crossroads trilogy, takes place 850,000 years ago. I read it because it’s in my genre (sort of), and we indie authors writing about super-ancient times gotta stick together.
In my persona as a cave woman, I was hoping to pick up some tips on raw survival. One main strategy employed by Xhosa’s tribe seems to be Running Away. Me approve, as I am a master at this and so are the characters in my own books.
In Survival of the Fittest, Xhosa and her tribe travel from somewhere in the interior of Africa, north, crossing the Great Rift Valley and then (I think?) the Red Sea, or whatever that used to be 848,000 years ago. Once in the Levant (the Arabian Peninsula? Or did such exist back then?), they meet up with another tribe that is already successfully living there, plus a pair of young misfits, accompanied by their pet wolf, who have come all the way from what is now China.
The book moves fast, covering a lot of territory, both literally and metaphorically. It never really took off for me. There were lots of different episodes, each of which could easily have been its own book. The narrative moved back and forth between different groups quite a bit. With Big Idea novels like this one (and like my own books), the reader has to be at least intrigued by the theory of history that the author is exploring, so perhaps my problem was that this element was missing for me.
Another thing that harmed the verisimilitude for me was what appeared to be inconsistencies in the language. On the one hand, the characters don’t have enough abstract thought to count other than saying, “One, another, another …” On the other hand, they can describe to one another things that the hearer has never seen, such as the sea. They call the Cro-Magnon people Big Heads (which seems fair enough), but occasionally they will talk about things using modern terms, like Lucy (yes, the Lucy) or “tsunami,” which seems like an anachronism to this linguist. To be fair, any time we are writing about people in an ancient time, we are writing in translation, so the modern writer has to decide when to use a “free translation” (using words that modern readers will recognize) and when to use more literal glosses on the characters’ vocabulary, which gives a more atmospheric feel but is also harder for the reader to understand.
However, the author does lay some land mines that I presume will be stepped on in the next book, notably the obvious danger posed by Xhosa’s ambitious head warrior, Nightshade. If you believe that people evolved about a million years ago, started out not wearing clothes or counting past one, and you’re fascinated by what life might have been like during that time, then this series is for you.
There are lot of notes about terminology and the different humanoid groups at the beginning, which were helpful, but one thing I really, really wanted was a map. I tried to picture the characters’ routes, and I was checking modern maps of Africa, but realizing that the land has probably changed a lot since the time this book is set. I wanted to know exactly where they crossed the Great Rift Valley (which is pretty large, after all); what body of water they were crossing; and exactly where in the Levant they ended up. If there had been a map at the beginning of the book, I would have been flipping back and forth to that puppy every few pages, and perhaps would have been more engrossed in the story.