I actually read this book back in July but flaked out and never got around to reviewing it. Promised Valley Rebellion by Ron Fritsch is set during the Agricultural Revolution in an area known only as the Promised Valley. Fans of Auel’s Earth’s Children series will recognize some aspects of this world: reliance on family, shaman, and stone tools, but this is a world in which farmers have begun to overtake the hunter gatherers and where the village chief is already styling himself a king.
The novel centers around the tension between past and present, young and old. For many years, there has been war between the hill and valley people. (I’m half convinced that these names were inspired by the song One Tin Soldier) This usually amounts to nothing more than than a few skirmishes, but fifteen years or so ago (the dates are vague) there was an invasion which resulted in massive casualties on both sides. Ultimately, the valley people fought back the hill people’s incursion into their lands, thanks in large part to Crown Prince Tall Oak and his friend Green Field. The story focuses on the valley heroes’ children, Prince Morning Sun, and Blue Sky and Rose Leaf, who must eventually learn that history is told by the victors, and that victors often have things to hide.
Spoilers after the break.
While the naming practices can be a bit hard to follow, ultimately I enjoyed Promised Valley Rebellion. One of it’s primary attractions is the way is treats the issue of homosexuality. Fritsch doesn’t sidestep the issue or introduce a token side character to exemplify homosexuality in the Neolithic age. Rather, he gives us Blue Sky, a gay protagonist, and then shows us why homosexuality is the least conflicting part of his identity. In Fritsch’s Neolithic, homosexuality is considered a relatively normal part of society, with many gay and lesbian people serving as Tellers (the aforementioned shaman of the valley people) while others help care for their nieces and nephews. While it clearly does affect Blue Sky’s place in society, essentially assuring him a place among the Tellers, it doesn’t completely define his character. Blue Sky is a brother, son, scholar, soldier, diplomat, and leader as well as a young gay man.
The world building was probably stronger than the narrative here, but then, I enjoy world building when it’s well handled. The stories, customs, and rituals of the valley people are an interesting read and while some might find their attitude towards sexuality too “PC”, the valley people are far from lily white in other respects. Their open racism towards the hill people is the most obvious example, but there is also a growing sense of classism between the courtiers in town and the farmers who live on the outskirts of the kingdom. While various characters do attempt to justify the differentials in wealth, career, political status, etc. hindsight enables us to see where the valley civilization is headed. Important positions are decided based on heredity rather than merit, and this is already shown to create problems when less capable or unpopular people are elevated to fill key roles. Freedom of information is also in question: there is no formal schooling unless a child decides to become a Teller when he or she comes of age, which means that much of the Tellers’ power comes from hoarding knowledge. This is actually explained away in the book but it’s important to note that the speaker is a Teller:
“‘Do the people really want to know?’ Spring Rain asked. ‘Do you think they’d enjoy counting the days of the seasons, or seeing the tiny difference between one day’s sunset point and the next? Would they enjoy memorizing those things – and all the stories behind those things? (…) Don’t you think,’ Spring rain asked, ‘they’re happier making wine and roasting beef?'”
The leading families also have their secrets: facts that they hide from the courtiers and farmers alike in order to protect their own social standing. As suggested by the title, this novel concerns a rebellion, and that rebellion is largely provoked by an increasing tendency to hide knowledge. All this to say that the valley people and their world seem well thought out and real, neither entirely idyllic nor entirely dystopian.
Admittedly, one of the key revelations is somewhat spoiled if you have any knowledge of the Agricultural Revolution. Given that hunter gatherers preceded farmers by several thousand years, it may not be overly surprising to you when you learn that the valley people, with their permanent town and outlying farms, are relatively new arrivals. While the young valley dwellers find this news to be quite disturbing, it doesn’t have quite the same shock value for a savvy reader. Granted, one might speculate that the valley people are more an offshoot of the hill people than true invaders (early on we’re informed that the two speak very similar languages) but the fact that valley culture is new should not come as a surprise. It’s difficult to fault Fritsch for this, and indeed that’s not the biggest surprise the characters will face though it is a major one.
So, final verdict? A very good coming of age story that manages to have young adult heroes without relying on the desperate love triangle formula that so many YA novels do, and which manages to address homosexuality without making it either the main focus of the window dressing for the book.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Read it if: You’re a fan of Prehistoric Fiction or you’re looking for a book with interesting gay characters.
Skip it if: The idea of homosexuality offends you or you need your historical fiction novels to be firmly situated in space and time.