Sue Harrison’s Call Down the Stars is a storyteller’s dream: a story within a story within a story. And if that’s not enough to get the gears in your mind spinning, it’s about – say it with me, now – storytellers.
It’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds, though. Harrison’s considerable skill with the written word ensures a smooth-flowing plot that, despite its complicated nature, is fairly easy to follow.
Call Down the Stars, the third book in her critically acclaimed Storyteller trilogy, revolves around the lives of the native Alaskans about 800 years ago. Harrison did a substantial amount of research for this project, and it shows. The book immerses readers in the daily lives of its characters: the trips for water, the hunts for meat and medicinal plants, the trading trips and perilous voyages by iqyax, the establishment of winter camps, summer camps and fish camps, the superstitions, and the all-important stories traded by the different peoples of the time.
Readers even get a firsthand look at how clothing is made, how food is preserved and how everything, urine included, has a use.
But most importantly, readers get to learn how the characters feel and what drives them: love, lust, greed, hunger, hate or envy. Not satisfied with just motivation, Harrison even explores the psychology behind the characters’ makeup.
Rarely has an author tackled such a complex plot structure and detailed characterization and succeeded. Rarer still has an author had the ability to make the whole package interesting to the point of being a page-turner: illicit sex, deceit, murder by poison and knife, battles against the elements, warfare, historical conjecture and love stories all set against the beautiful landscape of Alaska … what more could you want in a novel?
The book follows two intertwined stories: that of Yikaas, a storyteller of the River People, and Qumalix, a First Men storyteller, in 602 B.C. Together, they tell the tale of Daughter and the people she meets in 6,435 B.C.
Yikaas has been brought by his aunt to Trader’s Beach, the site of present-day Herendeen Bay in the Aleutians East, to reduce the size of his ego and to teach him new stories. While there, he falls in love with Qumalix, which helps him begin his transformation from selfish young man to wise storyteller.
The pair trade off telling stories of Daughter, a child from what is now called Honshu Island, Japan. Through a series of events, she and a man she calls Grandfather end up in a boat adrift on the open seas. It eventually makes its way to Yunaska Island in the Aleutians, where Daughter and Grandfather are found by a selfish woman named K’os.
As a young woman, K’os, of the Cousin River Village, was raped by three men of the Near River Village. The brutal attack left her unable to bear children, and left its share of mental scars, as well. She spends her life plotting revenge, and soon murder is second nature. But she does not stop at revenge, her twisted mind suspecting the worst in everyone. Her treacherous skills grow with age, as does her reputation as an evildoer.
When the people of her own village can no longer bear her, she is sold as a slave to the Walrus Village –spared from the knife by her adopted son, Chakliux. And though in time she moves from the status of slave to that of wife, still she plots…. With Daughter’s arrival, she sees the sea’s gift as a way to someday find revenge on the tribesmen who sold her.
As Yikaas and Qumalix tell the story of Daughter, they teach their circle of listeners the value of strength and forgiveness, and learn more about themselves in the process.
Call Down the Stars is a complex book, with frequent shifts in the storyline’s timeframe and an oft-tangled web of family and tribal ties. Because of this, it’s not always easy to follow, and references to the character list and glossary will probably be necessary. But that’s no reason to pass this one over.
It’s just one more reason to put it on your “to-read” list. Perhaps, like Yikaas, Qumalix and Daughter, you’ll learn something.
For more on Sue Harrison, Call Down the Stars and the Storyteller trilogy, go here.