Monday, November 5, 2012

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley

The Shadowy Horses
by Susanna Kearsley
Allison and Busby, 2009 (originally published in 1997)
407 pages

Huh, 407 pages went by really, really fast. Which is a good sign! For some reason, this book had crossed my awareness three or four times in the past two weeks, and then suddenly one of our library patrons brought it back last week. It was headed back to one of our other branches with no holds, and it seemed like fate. So I picked it up, figuring it might be a good semi-spooky read for Hallowe'en. And it was just perfectly eerie enough without freaking me out, and a solid read for other reasons as well. Solid enough that I've gone ahead and purchased a copy for my Kobo (unfortunately, not with this cover; the ebook cover is just baffling), and if I see a paper version floating around I'll pick that up too.

Verity Grey is an archaeologist. A friend and ex-flame has recommended her for a dig that he's also working on, a nice cushy job in Scotland near the town of Eyemouth on the North Sea. Feeling restless and wanting something different, and intrigued by the hints Adrian has dropped, Verity leaves her comfortable life in London to meet Peter Quinnell, the charismatic, wealthy, and possibly mad director of the planned dig. But it doesn't take long for Verity to start believing in Quinnell, and other seemingly impossible things -- the ghostly Sentinel that a local boy has befriended, and the fact that perhaps Quinnell and the psychic child have stumbled upon the final resting place of the legendary, long lost Ninth Legion, Legio IX Hispana.

First, the bad, and there is some: I don't think this is a stellar book. The writing was occasionally a little clunky, a little info-dumpy. The foreshadowing occasionally foreshadows nothing, or nothing serious. The hints of gothic suspense are just that: hints, that often flutter away into nothing, which left even my faint heart a little unsatisfied. Other foreshadowing is a bit roll-one's-eyes obvious. As a piece with these writing-related beefs, there can be a bit much telling (ie. Verity is referred to as "difficult" a couple of times) and not enough showing (she never appeared particularly difficult to me). All of this is pretty minor, comparatively, but I mention it because I was occasionally pulled out of the story, even if just momentarily.

Also, I wanted more of the horses. They never really gelled with the rest of the story for me. But they could have been so cool. The first appearance of the horses was the goosebumpiest moment of the book for me.

The middling: though there are some deeper threads here, they're never really investigated in any serious depth, so don't pick this up if you want a read that delves into family relationships, for example, in any significant way. There seems to be an attempt at exploring themes of family ties and tragedies, but it all seemed to me to be backdrop, not very meaty at all. That was just fine by me in this read, because I wasn't expecting, or wanting necessarily, a bigger emotional resonance. I just wanted some vaguely gothic fun, some ghosts, some history, and some characters I could connect with.

Which brings me to the good: writing flaws aside, this book is compulsively readable. I stayed up about four hours past my bedtime working away on it, and when I wasn't reading it I wanted to be. The plot is thick, the fun is there, and the characters are worth it. Verity herself is believable and very likable, intelligent and sensible, willing to believe the best of everyone but not blind. She's confident, absolutely not a pushover. The other characters are varied, and though we see them only through Verity's first person narration, they take on lives of their own. But it's really Verity who makes this book. I would read several more books with her as the narrator, if I could, just to spend more time with her.

And the history! This is where this book excels, although it occasionally does get bogged down in Kearsley's clear enthusiasm for the science of archaeology. Not that I minded much, given my own predilections where science is concerned, and the portrayal of science in media. This is where things can get a bit info-dumpy, but though it took me slightly out of the story, it was Verity's own enthusiasm that propelled the facts into conversation. I know that archaeology isn't glamourous and thrilling, but I've always been interested in it and despite its distinct lack of glamour I've always kind of thought I'd enjoy being an archaeologist of some description. There but for the siren song of environmental biology and librarianship I might have gone. So it's possible I enjoyed this book even more than others not so interested in archaeology might have, but I don't think it would be a show-stopper for them; there's enough here in the characters and plot to keep one engaged. Just skip the parts about the differences between Roman marching camps and forts.

This is gothic lit lite, so fans of the deeply creepy or very suspenseful may not want to bother with this. But a little light romance, a smattering of history, and a faintly ghostly story rooted well in sense of place (I really did feel like I was hanging out in Eyemouth and I read this all with a thick Scottish brogue in my head) was exactly what I wanted right now, and I'm looking forward to subsequent re-reads. Recommended, as long as you're aware that it's not a deep, disturbing, or heart-wrenching sort of read. I'm not quite convinced that Kearsley should be on my must-read list, but I'll certainly read more by her when the opportunity presents itself.


Aarti said...

Oh, what a great title! What does it MEAN? I am glad that there actually are horses in the book itself, too :-)

I am reading Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger now, which is pretty gothic, too! So creepily atmospheric :-)

Unknown said...

I'm willing to bet that Sarah Waters does creepy gothic atmospheric better than this book did. :) The title is from a Yeats poem, actually, which won points with me. As did the fact that each part (I believe there are four) is prefaced by a perfect little gem from Tennyson. Both poems are perfectly seated in the story and seemed right at home. Love it when an author can pull that off without seeming pretentious!

Bookwyrme said...

Now I want to read it. And... the library doesn't have it.


Bookwyrme said...

Now that was weird! I read your review and comments and thought "I want to read this book!" but it didn't show up in the library when I did a title search. I did an author search by whim, and there it was!

So, it's on hold and I'll get to read it after all.

Unknown said...

Woo! Yeah, our library catalogue does that sometimes too. I was looking up Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for someone the other day, and got three results for title, none of them the right book. Then I looked up Jeanette Winterson and got the right book first on the list. Very weird.

Hope you enjoy this! It's made me want to read more about Ancient Rome for sure...