“Prehistoric fantasy” stories make up an interesting niche within epic fantasy, combining popular fantasy story elements with aspects from stories of escapist realism. Imagine a riveting tale of woodland survival—finding water, fashioning protection from the sun, tracking game—with the implications of an epic quest—expansive vistas, wild magic, and finding out your efforts make a lasting impact on the course of human history.
Author R.A. Salvatore’s new novel Child of a Mad God adds a new tale to this niche, chronicling the story of a woman ranger/magician by the name of Aoleyn. Parent-less in a post-Neolithic fantasy world, she grows up on a desolate mountain forced to defend herself and scrounge resources from the barbarian tribe that is already there. However, Aoleyn is heir to a source of strong magic in this world, and Child of a Mad God begins just as that magic opens up amazing new opportunities for her. (You can read an excerpt here.)
Salvatore’s book comes as readers and video game players seem to be re-discovering the appeal of the prehistoric fantasy as explored through the perspective of hunter-ranger women. Perhaps we’re witnessing one of those moments of multiple discovery, but it seems more likely that prehistoric fantasy provides such an immediate, rich storytelling experience that it will always re-emerge. To wit:
Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017)
Child of a Mad God came out straight after the year-long hypefest for this amazing open-world game, and you’ll find a lot of readers comparing the two. In Horizon: Zero Dawn you play the role of Aloy, a young woman considered a cursed outcast by her tribe. Aloy uses her frustration over being ostracized as fuel to became a better, smarter hunter than anyone else in the area, and it’s a good thing, too, because a lot of the animals she and her father hunt are actually mechas! The game exists in a fantasy setting with a sci-fi past that is our own near future (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler; you’re told this right at the start of the game) and as you explore you slowly begin to understand what happened and how you may or may not hold the key to freeing humanity from its prehistoric, though beautiful, future.
Now that both Horizon: Zero Dawn and Child of a Mad God are out, players and readers have since noted the similarities between the main characters’ names: Aloy and Aoleyn. But this isn’t a recent phenomenon. For some reason, “ranger women” characters seem to demand names that begin with A.
Ayla (The Earth’s Children Series by Jean M. Auel, 1980)
The main character in Jean Auel’s classic Earth’s Children series, Ayla, is an orphaned Cro-Magnon adopted by Neanderthals. In the extremely gendered Neanderthal society, she becomes the only woman who is allowed to hunt, tracking small prey like rabbit with a sling and rock so as not to challenge the men’s hunts of elk and bears. As the series continues she is forced to leave the clan and live alone. She scratches a life out for herself, and ends up adopting a lion cub who helps her hunt as he grows up. After she nurses an injured Cro-Magnon back to health, the two fall in love and travel together before joining a clan of mammoth hunters, where they both learn to hunt in a large group in order to bring down larger prey. While the series has been critiqued as “Mary Sue walks across Europe, slowly,” Auel invests her prehistoric world with fine detail, paying careful attention to Ayla’s growth as a hunter.
Ayla (Chrono Trigger, 1995)
(We’re seeing double here…four Aylas!) In the now-classic Chrono Trigger game, plucky warriors assemble across different eras of time to combat the planet-destroying pestilence only known as “Lavos”. At one point, your time travel accidentally throws you back, back, wayyyyy back into prehistoric times where you are rescued by a ranger woman known as Ayla (No, not that one. This one). Furiously strong, the leader of her tribe, and openly omnisexual (In battle she has an ability to raise your character’s strength by exciting them with a “kiss.” It works on everyone, including the women, the robot, and the froggy swordsman.), Ayla helps you escape her era with her knowledge of the terrain and its oddities, joining your party as it travels further into time, with her skills becoming key to your survival as you blunder into more and more dangerous territory.
Your adventure in Ayla’s time takes up a significant chunk of the game, and playing through it gives you a quick idea of the appeal of prehistoric fantasies, but it’s not the focus of Chrono Trigger. If you’re looking for an introduction to prehistoric fantasy, you may need to check out the following series…
Renn, Torak, and Wolf (The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver, 2004)
In Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series the main character Torak meets and befriends I’M SORRY CAN WE JUST TALK ABOUT THAT PHOTO AND IT BEING THE BEST AUTHOR PHOTO EVER NO IT’S OKAY WE CAN GET THROUGH THIS befriends a ranger woman by the name of Renn, and together they embark on a quest with a lone wolf club they call, simply, Wolf. JUST LIKE THE WOLF IN THE AAAAAAHHHHMMMFFF. Their mission: fight prehistoric mages who are attempting to solidify control over their forest. This six-volume middle-grade/young-adult fantasy novel series features viewpoint character chapters that swap between Torak, his friend Renn, and, excitingly, Wolf himself! (These came out in the mid-2000s, so unfortunately the wolf chapters aren’t comprised of “I ATTAC MAMMOTH SAVE TORAK GUD BOI. 14/10.” But maybe that’s a plus for you. Maybe.)
The First North American series (W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear, 1990)
The First North American series is more historical fiction than prehistoric fantasy but it’s easy to miss that difference when you consider its absolutely massive size and continuity. Begun in 1990, the First North Americans story fills 18 novels (and thus features many many many rangers of all kinds) starting with the settlers who crossed the Bering Strait land bridge circa 13,000 BCE and continuing all the way to the Iroquois Nation’s internal conflicts in the around the year 1400 CE. Dreamers and shamans figure into the novels, bringing prophecy and hints of magic, but where the series makes history truly fantastical is in its focus on the fluidity of oral history. For these peoples and tribes, their world was what they experienced, coupled with the last story they were told, and that could all change in an instant. Pass on a story a certain way, and you’ve changed the world. Our world.