I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I pulled David M. Donachie’s The Drowning Land out of the review pile. I mean, I read the synopsis, obviously, so I knew a little about the story, but this was my first experience with a novel centered on early man and I couldn’t help but wonder if that would keep me from caring about the characters.
Would they be too different, too outside a modern mindset, to connect with?
In retrospect, that is a silly thing to get hung up on. I’ve read and connected with stories populated by characters much further removed from humanity than Donachie’s version of paleolithic people, and that’s what Donachie creates—people.
People just as full of fears and foibles, hopes and dreams, cruelties and kindnesses, as people today. People grappling with a world that has simultaneously been gradually changing for generations and is suddenly changing way too fast. And the people who can adapt, those who band together and allow old prejudices to die—they are the people best suited to survive and thrive in this changing world. Any of that sound familiar?
There is a clear message in Donachie’s work, for those looking for one, but there is also an excellent story. A story about two teenagers from different cultures, different species even, learning first to trust each other, and then work together, and then love each other in spite of overwhelming odds and the literal end of the world as they know it. Donachie’s protagonists each bring specific strengths, talents, and skills to their partnership, so watching them stumble through a language barrier and grow into this partnership is a truly rewarding experience.
There is also a villain. Multiple villains, technically, but our primary human antagonist is also a point of view character for a few chapters and there is strength in getting that insight into him. He’s not evil for the sake of evil, he’s just another man trying to fit the changing world into his personal belief system, like all of us are.
Granted, his personal belief system involves human sacrifice, so we can all definitively call him “the bad guy”, but there is a very scared person under that badness and getting that look at his psyche is a visceral reminder of that old truism: “No one is the villain in their own mind.” The antagonist thinks that what he is doing will save his people, just as the protagonists are trying to save theirs.
Because, at the end of the day, beneath the fact that these are all early humans and neanderthal descendants, they are still just people. People beautifully researched, imagined, and rendered by a man with a talent for storytelling and a knack for weaving fact into his work. When you finish The Drowning Lands, I highly recommend reading the Afterword, where Donachie lays out the historical basis for his characters and setting. There’s a retroactive richness added to the experience when you realize how grounded in potential fact and believable hypothesis this novel truly is.
An excellent story, well told, and certainly one I’ll be recommending to friends looking for a fresh new voice.