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Secrets of the Ancient Goddess
Brenda Gates Smith
Signet Books, 382 pages

Secrets of the Ancient Goddess
Brenda Gates Smith
A graduate of Portland State University, Brenda Gates Smith went to work for a radio station where she built an advertising portfolio with the use of local talent. She left the station to freelance, applying her writing skills to television and radio commercial work, but the inner call to write novels was unrelenting. After the birth of her second son, she made the decision to write full time on her manuscript. She lives with her husband and sons in rural Oregon. Secrets of the Ancient Goddess is her first novel.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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Dateline, Turkey, circa 5000 BCE: Yana the young wife of Eom, priest of a neolithic matriarchal, Goddess-worshipping tribe, is banished when her second child is born with a slight deformity. Eom finds her a place among a band of travelling traders and has a love-at-first-sight experience with a bold and rebellious priestess-in-training named Henne. Also covetous of an amulet she carries, he follows them at a distance. The body of the novel is then devoted to Yana who must deal with two babies, one hers and another adopted from a dead trader woman, as well as participate in a dangerous ceremony to be accepted into the tribe. Henne and Eom are taken prisoner by a tribe of nomadic horsemen and must find a way of not being reduced to slavery. Henne has her work cut out for her attempting to bring the "gospel" of the Goddess to her barbaric Horse-God-worshipping captors and in particular her imposed husband, the chief.

Many early prehistoric novels, like the Frenchman Elie Berthet's The Prehistoric World (1879), were largely didactic. The first major writer in the genre as well a major science-fiction pioneer was the Belgian-born writer J.H. Rosny, whose Les Xipehuz, Vamireh, Eyrimah, La guerre du feu (Quest for Fire), Le felin geant (The Giant Cat), and Helgvor du fleuve bleu span over 40 years from 1887 to 1930. Along with English titles such as Jack London's Before Adam (1906), Stanley Waterloo's The Story of Ab: A Tale of the Time of the Cave Man (1910), and H. Rider Haggard's Allan and the Ice Gods: A Tale of Beginnings (1927), most of the early prehistoric fiction had strictly male protagonists and women were predominantly there as love or lust interests. Among the worst of this literature was the caveman meets dinosaurs (or other anachronisms) genre. However, some writers, in particular Rosny, wrote stories steeped in the archaeology and anthropology of their time and which, while perhaps superseded today, were the state of the art in their time.

Current anthropology suggests that many prehistoric societies were matriarchal and that various goddesses representing purity on one hand and fertility on the other were worshipped. Statuettes of large breasted and hugely pregnant women are common to several early burial sites. The subsequent subversion of matriarchy to patriarchy, at least in the Greek context, was touched upon in Robert Graves' (of I, Claudius fame) retelling of the Golden Fleece tale in his historical fantasy Hercules, My Shipmate (1945).

Perhaps one of the first authors to write prehistoric novels with strong female protagonists was S. Fowler Wright. His semi-SF trilogy Dream; or, The Simian Maid (1931), The Vengeance of Gwa (1935), and Spider's War (1954) resemble Total Recall in that a modern-day woman enters an imposed dream-like state and is transposed into a prehistoric woman. In the first two of Fowler's books, similarly to Ms  Smith's book, young women are forced to leave their people and have various adventures and romantic involvements, also getting involved in the workings of primitive cults. The importance of women in early societies was also highlighted in Vardis Fisher's excellent Darkness and the Deep, The Golden Rooms, Intimations of Eve and Adam and the Serpent (1943-47), the first four volumes in his acclaimed Testament of Man series.

In more recent times, strong female characters like Ayla in Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series, and the many female protagonists in archaeologists Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear's First North Americans series have become the norm, and male characters have fallen out of favour and are sometimes relegated to simply providing a danger element for the women to overcome.

While I'm all for women's equality, it is also obvious that the current prehistoric "fat novels" probably have a large female readership and are presented in a manner to please that market. In this regard, Secrets of the Ancient Goddess is right on track, historically "accurate," but having background elements that hint ever so slightly of romance novel and soap opera plots.

Where B.G. Smith has done well is in writing a book which, while steeped in gynocentric mythology and ritual and obviously designed for a predominantly female readership, also has sufficient adventure, powerful male characters, and graphic but not gratuitous sex, to interest the typical male reader. Smith has also done well in not writing a rambling "fat novel" for her first effort, though she does pack a lot of material into the book. She has kept the story down to two main plot lines and avoided lengthy tangents. While their themes are extremely different, the succinctness of her writing reminds me of Richard Matheson, whose novels and short stories, while evocative, are very efficient in their use of words. In Matheson's case, this is likely linked to his years of screenplay writing where text must be cut to the bone. Similarly in Smith's work, her years of writing advertising copy have served her well in creating a work that reads quickly and fluidly without being exempt of emotion and panorama.

Where Secrets of the Ancient Goddess is a bit weak is in its "Hollywood realism." It does seem that Smith has researched the era of which she writes in some detail. However, while never stated outright, one gets the impression that however grim the circumstances, the women all have their hair done and the men are each wearing their best shiny sword. Undramatic things like epidemic diseases, endoparasitism, the constant drudgery of hunting and gathering, the lack of basic sanitation and anything but the most rudimentary medicine, and the resultant short life expectancies of the neolithic people are so many things that are glossed over for the sake of the story. There are plenty of brutal killings and rapes and the like, but these are the sorts of plot devices that while perhaps realistic in the context, also simply play well for shock value. On the other hand, the depiction of the characters' evolving response to events in a psycho-theological context is fairly well done, though given the absence of written documents from this era, our recreations of ancient religions are guesses at best.

Overall, Secrets of the Ancient Goddess is a solid first novel. The prehistoric novel is certainly a writing niche occupied by a limited number of authors, so B.G. Smith should easily be able to continue in this literary form. The plotting and feel of the novel will appeal more to a female readership, but should not leave men unsatisfied. Besides, if some of us can't take the new female prehistoric heroines we can always go and rent Encino Man.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.


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