When writers ask me how to tell whether a writer (of any genre) knows horses, I’ve tended to fumble around for examples, any examples, help me, wonky memory, you are my only hope.
Not any more. I finally reread Gate of Ivrel after quite a few years, and now all I need to do is point. “Read this. See what it does. Do likewise.”
It’s a great book to begin with. It takes the classic Andre Norton plot—lonely, abused orphan caught up in death-defying adventure involving ancient aliens and their artifacts, gates between worlds, medieval-style riders on horseback mixed in with futuristic machines, and a beautiful woman with Powers—and turns it into a rich, complex, and totally engrossing story. As Andre herself said in her introduction, it’s a Norton-inspired novel by an author who can write rings around her. And she loved it, and so, when I first read it, did I.
I still do. It’s every bit as wild a ride as I remembered, and every bit as well written. And it gets the horses right.
The way this universe is built, we’re in the unimaginably far future, alien meddling through worldgates has collapsed time on itself, and humans are living in the ruins with preindustrial technology and, of course, horses. Morgaine is on a cosmic quest, and Vanye is swept along with her.
Vanye is born in one of the worlds that the Gates and Morgaine between them have ruined, in a society that mostly resembles feudal Japan, with a hint of the Western medieval Church. He’s a bastard son, bullied by his brothers and outlawed for the murder of one of them and the maiming of the other. He accidentally frees Morgaine from the Gate in which she is trapped, and swears indelible fealty to her. Then he learns what he’s bound himself to: a quest that spans the full extent of time and Gate-space, to go through every Gate and destroy it, until the last Gate leads nowhere but to the destroyer’s death.
It’s a vast, doomed, terrible undertaking, but Vanye is bone stubborn and relentlessly honorable. And he’s a horseman.
Gates may be so advanced in their technology that they’re indistinguishable from magic, but the best way to travel in between is on horseback. Morgaine wears armor and carries a sword that is actually a kind of mini-Gate, and rides a suitably heroic horse, the great grey, Siptah, whose ancestor no doubt is Shadowfax. Vanye being more or less a samurai is born to the saddle, and rides a succession of horses as the novel and eventually the series proceeds.
What makes him a true horseman is the way in which we come to know each of his horses. We learn that his first pony was named Mai, and that when he was outlawed, he had a gelding, also named Mai. And when he’s attacked on the road, two years into his outlawry, he wins another horse, a bay, whom he names, inevitably, Mai.
I have said that Vanye is stubborn.
In the process of becoming Morgaine’s liege man and acquiring her extensive population of enemies, Vanye loses the bay and ends up with a large, aristocratic, and nasty-tempered black gelding. Vanye does not name the black Mai. He does not name it anything. He is not fond of the black, though he grudgingly comes to admire the beast. It’s just as stubborn as Vanye, and in its cranky way, it’s just as relentlessly loyal.
One of my issues with the horses in Red Moon and Black Mountain is that they don’t have any personality. Even Dur’chai is a generic Immortal Hero Mount. But more than that, the book is missing the little things, the small details that horse people notice.
Gate of Ivrel notices. There’s no big deal made of it, no flashing signs pointing to HORSE STUFF HERE. But it’s ongoing and consistent, and the details are the kinds of things that say, yes, this writer knows horses.
It goes beyond treating the horses as characters, giving them names and roles to play in the story. Vanye thinks about them. He keeps track of how much feed there is, which is really important in real-life horsekeeping, and he makes sure the horses watered and tended every time, every ride. We know they have tack, and we see it going on and coming off. Horses get hungry, tired, may be wounded or go lame.
They act like horses, too. They shy at scary things and sudden noises. When a new horse comes on board, Vanye has to worry about whether it will get along with the others, and may have to keep them separated while he’s trying to keep himself and Morgaine alive. It’s the sort of thing a horse person will think about, but a non-horse person won’t know to do.
What it comes down to is that the horses are more than set-dressing. They’re very much a part of the action, and they’re realistic in how they participate. They aren’t elided or forgotten. If they’re part of the action onstage, we know what they’re doing and how they feel about it. If they’re offstage, Vanye is probably either worrying about them or keeping them in his calculations. He appreciates them not only as essential and frequently life-saving transport, but as individuals.
This is not a horse book—it’s not about the horses—but the horses are characters just like the humans. They aren’t idealized or anthropomorphized. Siptah or the Mais or that wicked black could show up in any stable around here; any horse person will have met any or all of them.
And that’s how to do it right. It’s all the little things coming together, all the small details that point to the daily experience of horses. I always wanted my own Siptah, and I’ve ridden a few Evil Blacks and plenty of sweet little bays and fat round ponies.
I will confess that now I’ve reread the first of the Morgaine books, I’m happily questing onward through the series. But for our Summer Reading Adventure, I’m moving on to another favorite, and another memorable grey, R.A. McAvoy’s The Grey Horse.
Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.