Writing Fantasy Horses Right: Kristen Britain’s Green Rider

Green Rider was published when I was taking an extended break from the genre, during a period of Very Long Epic Fantasy Series, including one that’s done rather well on television. I heard about it because horses, had it in the TBR pile, but never quite got around to reading it. Then came this blog series, and multiple reader recommendations, and here we are.

Back in the day we would have reckoned this a clone of a clone of a clone, a distant descendant of Tolkien via D&D and the many Tolkien imitators of the Seventies and Eighties and early Nineties, but it’s a deft pastiche and there’s love in the way it follows its predecessors. It’s a direct descendant of Mercedes Lackey’s Herald series with a distinct dialogue going on, a lot of thinking and transforming. I’m very curious to know the chain of influence that led to the huge magical wall being broken by the evil Shadow Man with his zombie army—it’s not a Game of Thrones/ASOIAF reference, they’re just about contemporaneous, so, how? And most important for what I’m supposed to be doing here, it does the horses right.

The plot is familiar. Wealthy merchant’s daughter Karigan gets suspended from school (unfairly) for fighting with a snotty aristocrat. She runs away and encounters a dying royal messenger, a Green Rider. The messenger forces her to take on his mission and deliver a sealed message to the king. Along with the message comes the rider’s clothes and gear including a magical winged horse brooch, a hidden love letter, and his horse.

Karigan doesn’t waaaaannnnnaaaa, but one way and another she gets kicked and pushed and shoved into doing what the now ghostly rider needs her to do. It’s a long ride full of adventures and encounters both good and bad. She meets a pair of weird sisters in a magical manor with invisible servants, and leaves with a pocketful of McGuffins that prove useful as she goes on. She’s chased by a wicked Captain, a pair of traitorous swordmasters, and the evil Shadow Man, and rescued at one point by an Elf. She’s captured, she’s tortured, she escapes.

Eventually she makes it to the king and hands over her message. But she can’t go home yet. She stays while the king sorts out the real message, which isn’t the one she thought she was delivering, and is more or less assumed to be a Green Rider, but she doesn’t waaaaannnnnaaaa despite being accepted by the brooch, the entire Wild Ride of dead riders who sweep her off the road and into the palace and right up to the king’s feet, and the late rider’s horse.

Just as she finally gets to leave, the assassins attack the king, the evil brother takes over the castle, and Karigan has to help set things right. Though not because she cares anything about the king or the kingdom. Her father is in the throne room. She has to rescue him. She is determined, to the very end, to Not. Be. A Green Rider.

Karigan is the kind of protagonist who makes me want to bitch-slap her till she grows some sense. Or until she drops dead. Whichever comes first. What saves the book for me is its supporting cast.

The people who have to put up with Karigan range from bog-standard Kindly Strangers and Noble Supernatural Beings to wonderfully rounded and accessible personalities. I particularly took to Karigan’s father, to the Captain of the Green Riders, and to the king. The first two are middle-aged and mature and smart and sane, and they do their jobs in the best way they know how. They’re solid, but they’re also very much alive and complicated and attractively flawed.

The king is younger, maybe a decade older than Karigan, but he’s had a lot to live through, and he never wanted the job in the first place. He’s very good at it, even so, and he doesn’t try to quit in a snit, which is a lesson Karigan really needs to learn (as I suspect she will in later books in the series; I hope it’s painful and I hope the lesson sticks). As fantasy kings who don’t want their jobs go, he’s lovely.

It’s not just the good guys who are well drawn. Most of the villains are fairly standard issue: the Shadow Man, the Harkonnenesque Governor who plots against the king, the sneeringly incompetent evil prince, the nasty rapey thugs. But Jendara, the master swordswoman who is a traitor for love, has some depth to her, and it’s not hard to feel her pain as she wakes up to how unworthy her beloved is.

But my favorite character, the best of all, is one who never says a spoken word. That character is, of course, The Horse.

He has a name, which Karigan learns when she finally makes it to the royal city, but for the majority of the story, that’s who and what he is: The Horse. He’s not your standard fantasy horse at all, and that’s what makes him so wonderful. It’s clear he’s magical, and he has considerable intelligence, but he doesn’t look fancy. He’s just a big, heavy-boned red gelding with lots of speed and stamina and, when he needs them, good battle skills (“He must be proud-cut,” someone opines at that point, which is hilarious if you’re in on the joke).

That’s refreshing in light of all the Shadowfaxes and Goliaths who inhabit Fantasyland. He’s Britain’s conversation with Lackey’s Companions, offering a real-world alternative to the silver-hooved, blue-eyed, supernaturally white beings so beloved of so many fantasy fans; just as the Green Riders are the practical version of the white-clad, telepathic, openly magic-using Heralds. The Horse does a lot of the things that Companions do, and Green Riders are Heralds for all intents and purposes, but they’re rooted in ordinary earth.

It works because Britain is so clearly a real horse person. I grew up with the kind of horse The Horse is. My favorite horse in college was The Horse, though he was a little more fantastically colored: a rich, deep red with straw-colored mane and tail. He was built like a truck, he could jump anything, and if you didn’t ride him right, he had an iron mouth and bone-jarring gaits. But ride him right and he was lovely.

Britain writes as one who has lived the horsegirl’s life. She knows horses and riding and horse care. She’s ridden fences, she’s bruised her butt riding all day. She’s hauled a saddle off a fence rail; she’s done up a girth when her fingers are freezing or soaking wet. She’s taken responsibility for grooming and feeding a horse. She knows what horse people think of and when and how.

What tells me this is not just that she gets every detail right. It’s that she does it consistently throughout. Karigan is a self-absorbed little twit, and there are times when she uses and abuses The Horse as well as humans, but she never forgets to make sure he’s fed and cared for. She rests him on the road when she can, she rides him as considerately as possible in the circumstances, and she’s always aware of him in the way horse people are aware of their horses. He’s important to her not just because she needs him for transport, but because he’s himself. To her, quite properly, he’s a person. He’s someone she cares about.

That’s how to write a 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.

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