I rarely review one of my research books, in no small part because I don’t always read the whole book. This one was an exception to that, and an exceptional read to boot.
I picked up The Shaman’s Coat, written by Anna Reid, with some trepidation. I am planning on setting the next book in the Pixie for Hire universe mostly in Alaska and Siberia, and I knew little about the native folktales and myths of that vast northern land. Alaska I’ve done a lot of reading on, and there are many sources. Siberia? Not so much. Oh, there are the accounts of the exiles in gulags, but that wasn’t what I needed for creating a tale of the ancient things left lying in the under-land, lurking. I was hoping The Shaman’s Coat, a history of the native peoples, would help.
I was also a little afraid that the book would be, well, woo-woo. I’m writing mythology tales, and tales of spirits and beliefs that take solid forms, but what I didn’t want (and don’t like to read) was a thin veneer of New Age wibbly-wobbly painted over a shell that sort of looked like Siberia if you squinted. I was very glad that although Reid does touch on this from time to time – she visited a self-styled shaman in California at the beginning, and came away rather revolted, as I would have – she mostly sticks to the tales of the people she meets as she travels across a vast expanse of land.
There was much in here I enjoyed, and I will be going back over the book to pull out what I need for my story points. Tales of the bears, and reindeer, and seals… all those can help me. But the flip side of the story in this book is that there is little left of the natives who once inhabited the far north, after generations of forcible intervention by Soviets whose intentions ranged from extracting wealth in the removal of oil or diamonds, to the Soviets who firmly believed that all people were equal, and should be relocated from their homes to tiny farms, ignoring that in the capricious north you can barely garden, let alone grow potatoes, until all the people starved and died. It is ultimately a tragic tale (aren’t all Russian stories thus?) and one I had to put down from time to time and take a break. Find some hope and sunshine and hug my kids…
It’s worth reading, if you are at all curious about the history of Siberia. It’s written well, easy to read in style, and offers a glimpse of fascinating what-might-have-been alternate history timelines. I’m not going to explore those, but they do leave you wondering.
Oh, and the Shaman’s Coat? She didn’t find one, in the end, as she came to the waves of the Bering Strait. All that were left were the cold rocks and empty booze bottles that had drained away the hope of a once-fierce people.