Just in time for the August bank holiday, the Muse is back for our monthly reading post. Since we are on a bit of a horse theme at the moment, the first book I’d like to bring to your attention is a fabulous historical horse story that should appeal to those who liked “I am the Great Horse”.
I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade – Diane Lee Wilson
This book is set on Mongolian steppe at the height of Kubilai Khan’s great empire.
Oyuna, crippled as a baby when a horse crushes her foot, nevertheless has a great love for horses and finds freedom riding on their backs. But her lameness is seen as bad luck, and when her mother is killed by lightning Oyuna and her family are declared unclean by the shaman. She vows to bring good luck back to her clan by winning the long race at the annual Karakorum Festival. But first she must find herself a fast horse – and the old, lame white mare Bayan who “speaks” to her at the horse fair clearly will not do. But Oyuna can tell the mare is miserable so she persuades her father to buy the white horse, and they return to their clan. She secretly hopes that if she can heal Bayan’s leg, the mare will be able to race.
However, the spirits have other plans for Oyuna. One morning the Khan’s soldiers arrive to claim horses and boys for the Khan’s army. When they try to take Bayan, Oyuna disguises herself as a boy to stay with her horse. Thus begins an atmospheric and lyrical story that takes the lame girl, her faithful white mare, and her brave cat Bator across mountains and deserts to the great city of Kubilai Khan, who keeps a herd of 1,000 sacred white mares. There, Oyuna thinks, she is bound to find a horse fast enough to win the long race.
Oyuna’s journey is one of bravery, loss, and coming of age. The author is clearly a horse lover, and this is one of those books that gets under the skin so that, after finishing it, you just want to turn back to the beginning and read it all over again… at least Katherine did! First published 12 years ago, this debut novel was voted an American Libraries Association best book for young adults. It has just been reissued, so if you didn’t catch it last time then make sure you don’t miss it this time around!
Now for something completely different…
Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landy
This book starts with a death. When Stephanie’s uncle (a famous writer, but that's not important) dies unexpectedly in mid-sentence, he leaves Stephanie his house complete with secret passages and underground caverns – much to the disgust of his other relatives, who get only a worthless (they think!) old brooch. But there is another person at the reading of the will: a strange man wrapped up in scarf and coat called Skulduggery Pleasant, who knows better.
It’s a great beginning, and with a name like that you can probably guess Skulduggery is not exactly normal. He turns out to be a skeleton detective on the trail of a magical weapon called the Sceptre, to which only Stephanie’s dead uncle holds the key. So begins a thrill-a-page chase through Dublin city, where Stephanie finds herself fighting creatures of magic that lurk in the cracks and shadows of our modern world.
If you’re in the mood for a fairly easy read with plenty of wise-cracking humour, this book is for you. Although it has a heroine, the fight and chase scenes should appeal to boys - in fact, for the Muse’s taste, there were rather too many of these towards the end of the book at the expense of emotional depth. But Skulduggery is a brilliant and unique creation and deserves further stories to fully explore his character… so the good news is there are already another four available! Are you a Skulduggery fan? Let the Muse know.
Last (but by no means least) is a more recent novel involving creatures of ancient darkness, which makes an interesting contrast to Derek Landy’s because this one has plenty of emotional depth as well as excitement:
Devil's Kiss – Sarwat Chadda
It’s a brave book that begins with the teenage heroine setting out to kill a six-year-old child – except, of course, the little boy is actually a demon, one of many that haunt 21st century London in this debut novel shortlisted for the 2010 Branford Boase Award.
Billi SanGreal is the daughter of the Grand Master of the modern day Knights Templar, now a small order based in London, who continue their centuries-old struggle against the creatures of darkness. After one of them killed her Muslim mother, Billi has been raised to fight vampires, werewolves and the unholy wherever they may lurk. She is aided in her quest by her childhood friend Kay (an albino psychic) and her unforgiving father Arthur. But she is also a fifteen year old girl with normal needs. When the handsome Mike helps her see off a gang of thugs on the underground one night returning late from a mission, she falls for his charm, unaware that he is the Angel of Death come to bring the tenth plague on the firstborn of London.
This dark thriller has echoes of Dan Brown and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and is not for the faint hearted. With its links to history and multicultural society, as well as cursed mirrors and enchanted swords, the fantasy has a definite edge of reality – in fact, some of Sarwat Chadda’s gorier scenes would give adult horror authors a run for their money! But Billi SanGreal is a great character, thoroughly believable and human underneath her vampire slayer persona, which balances the violence. If you enjoy this one you’ll be delighted to know there is a sequel “Dark Goddess” and a possible third book on the way. More details on the author’s blog.
The Great Horse series continues next post.