by Stephen Baxter
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Mammoth: Silverhair is Stephen Baxters "lost world" novel. However, Baxter tells his story with an interesting twist. Rather than tell the story of the team of adventurers that stumbles upon the last enclave of mammoths on an isolated arctic island, Baxter tells his tale from the point of view of Silverhair, a female member of the mammoth herd.
Although there is plenty of adventure in the book, Baxter has given himself a much broader scope. In addition to describing the present day trials and tribulations as the last herd of mammoths attempts to survive their discovery, Baxter includes tidbits of mammoth history and legend, dating back to Kilukpuk, the legendary mother of all mammalian species. These myths, called the Cycle, explain the rules which mammoth society follows. As the story progresses and Silverhair begins to have new experiences, she finds that she, and her companion Lop-Ear, must break from the Cycle when it is no longer adequate for their experiences.
Baxter's mammoth's are a fully realized species which is very much aware of its place within its own ecosystem. Isolated on an arctic island somewhere north of Siberia, the mammoths know, on an intellectual and rational level rather than instinctive, how to survive in their wilderness. Baxter spends the first third of the novel demonstrating how the mammoth's survive in normal situations. However, into this world comes a new threat, the Lost.
Even before Silverhair has her first encounter with the Lost, it is clear to both the readers and the characters that Silverhair's family is in trouble. It has been many years since they last time they have had any contact with either another herd or with a pack of bulls. They know that they may be the last of the species, although it takes Lop-Ear, a young male with an exceptional mind, to realize the full consequences. Once the Lost make their appearance, the mammoths discover that they have a new enemy in their world who they will not be able to survive if the idea of survival of the fittest has any validity.
Baxter's strength in this book is his ability to create the mammoth's physiology and culture in a reasonably realistic way, making the reader believe that mammoths could have this form of communication. Although billed as a book for "younger readers," Mammoth: Silverhair manages to rank with books like Richard Adams's Watership Down or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit in its ability to satisfy both children and adults. Baxter refuses to talk down to children, apparently assuming that they enjoy the basic story and later be able to re-read it and gain from the nuances they might have missed.
Mammoth: Silverhair is the first novel in a trilogy, the second book of which is entitled Longtusk, which, Baxter tells the reader, is the name of a relatively recent Bull mammoth who is no longer alive. It will be interesting to see whether Baxter uses the opportunity to work backwards through the mammoth's history or show more of Longtusk's effects in this last mammoth family.
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