Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book Review: The Dark Horse by Marcus Sedgwick

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

Marcus Sedgwick's The Dark Horse is a story of magic and betrayal set in some harsh northern land. The Dark Horse is a tale of the Storn, a remote and apparently Nordic coastal tribe. The Storn are totally isolated except for some contact with itinerant traders. When we plunge into the story the Storn are on the brink of a calamity. Crops have failed yet again, the sea no longer provides any substantial catch of fish, and matters are progressively getting worse. There are rumors that the brutal and vicious horse-riders — the legendary dark horse — are sweeping through the land destroying one settlement after the other.

The Dark Horse is the story of Sigurd and Mouse. Sig (as everyone calls Sigurd) is one of the Storn. Mouse on the other hand is an outsider, who the Storn have accepted as one their own. Five years ago before the present in the story, Sig, during a wolf hunt, had found and rescued a timid girl from a wolves' lair in the mountains that border their village on one side. The girl is named Mouse due to her shyness, and Sig’s family adopts her and they raise her as Sig's sister. Mouse's origins and identity remain unknown, as do the answers to many questions about her: Why was Mouse living with the wolves? Why hadn't the wolves harmed the little girl? The Dark Horse unfolds as the mystery around Mouse's origins and her identity is slowly revealed.

The tribe gets inkling about Mouse soon after Sig’s family adopts her when they find her sleeping with the dogs. She explains that she was comforting the dogs that were sad since the oldest dog had died. As everyone stares at her, she asks them "Don't they talk to you?" Later she accompanies Sig who is going to the sea with the others in the tribe to catch fish. When the fishing party catches nothing for hours, Mouse uses a hawk to locate the best place to fish. It is soon evident that Mouse has the ability to talk to animals, see what they see, and even control them. Many of the tribe fear Mouse because of her unusual powers. The fact that she is not one of them makes some of the Storn extremely wary of Mouse. However, she is protected by Sigurd and his family.

One day as Sig and Mouse are looking for sea-cabbage near their village, they find a box washed up on shore that feels empty. No one of the Storn is able to open the box. Mouse however manages to open the box later but it has a terrible effect on her. Meanwhile a stranger, called Ragnald, with blond hair and black palms comes looking for the box. It is soon evident that Ragnald is looking for something else as well. Ragnald kills Horn, the chief of the Storn and Sig's father. Sig in turn kills Ragnald. A couple of twists and turns later and through a complicated chain of law and tradition Sig becomes the chief of the Storn. From this point onwards, Mouse's identity and her unknown origins become central to the tale's events.

Sig, immediately on becoming the chief of the Storn, is required to muster his people together against a violent attack of the dark horse. Many of the Storn are killed in the gruesome attack and the survivors scatter and escape into the mountains. Mouse with her gift then assists Sig to get his tribe together and then leads them further away into the mountains. The Storn's attempt to reach a safe place is however thwarted as the dark horse track them down and capture them. It is as a prisoner of the dark horse that Sig discovers the heart-wrenching secret about Mouse.

The atmosphere of mystery and dark foreboding and inevitable betrayal make The Dark Horse a compelling read. The answers that the reader has to seek are many and encourage the reader to turn immediately to the next page. Mouse's origins and identity are a mystery. No one knows why she was found amongst the wolves. Also as mysterious (and dangerous) are the dark horse. Only legends and traveler's tales tell of this marauding race. The information about these vicious attackers is sketchy and adds to the sense of foreboding that envelopes the novel. We as readers, like the characters in the novel, know that the dark horse will inevitably attack the Storn one day. Like the characters, we too are clueless about the dark horse — are they for real or merely a legend? Why do they want to hunt down the Storn? What about the box that Sig and Mouse find on the shore? What does it contain? Why no one but Mouse is able to open it? Why does it affect her so terribly when she opens it? Why is Ragnald looking for the box? How is the box connected to Mouse?

One way that Sedgwick's achieves this mystery is through the brilliant narrative of The Dark Horse. Sedgwick actually tells us two intertwined stories simultaneously. The third-person narrative tells of the story's present and appraises the reader about the imminent danger faced by Sig and the Storn. This alternates with the other story told in the novel. This other narrative strand is in a series of first-person flashbacks narrated by Sig. These flashbacks begin five years from the tale's present, the time when Sig found Mouse, and then move forward to the point the two narratives coincide in time. We thus have Mouse's mystery set up and unraveled through Sig's viewpoint. The threat of the dark horse is meanwhile built up in the third person narrative. The reader is expected to alternate between these two narrative voices and make sense of the clues, make connections between the two, understand the driving forces and motivations of the characters and finally find the answers to the many questions.

Like in his other novels, Sedgwick's prose is sparse and devoid of any non-essentials. In a way, the prose reflects the bare Nordic landscape that is the story's setting. Though the style may be lean, Sedgwick's tale is rich and involving. Sedgwick has perfectly conveyed the feeling of powerful time moving inexorably and inevitably on in this novel. The first-person narrative of Sig allows the author to intersperse his novel with wonderful sections in which character's thought and emotion are detailed. His account of the action: the dark horse's violence and Storn's ragged but hopeful defense are great — economical in word and description, and yet shocking and terrifying.

Sedgwick's other strength is the brilliant settings in which his stories unfold. As in The Book of Dead Days and The Dark Flight Down, The Dark Horse has a very strong sense of place — the surroundings in which the tale unfolds. The bleak shoreline, the stone brochs of the village, the harsh moorland, the forbidding mountains, and the deep valleys that lie above and beyond the Storn's settlement are painted with but the most essential brush strokes. Yet the details provided are so adequate and perfect that you fill in the picture from the knowledge you have.

The Dark Horse has a well-crafted plot that is paced brilliantly making this short novel — one can read it end to end in about an hour and maybe a little over — a gripping and absorbing read. Like Sedgwick's other works, I found this novel too immensely and very satisfyingly readable. With The Dark Horse however, Sedgwick has become one of my favorite authors of fantasy fiction.

My review of The Book of Dead Days and The Dark Flight Down.

1 comment:

LykABawz said...

Pretty Good Book, Reading It At School!! :D