The Horse Road by Troon Harrison takes a fascinating slice of history and plants it firmly within the believable world of a girl and her horse. Set in the steppes of Persia, where traders, farmers, and horse-loving nomads meet, Kalli (Kallisto) is the daughter of a Scythian warrior-turned-slave-turned-wife-and-horse-trainer and a Greek merchant. Kalli’s father is scarcely ever home, and her elder brothers are educated in the Greek tradition. As much as Kalli loves her male relatives, the person whose approval she seeks, and fears she will never earn, is her mother’s. Kalli’s father makes few demands on his beloved plump daughter, leaving Kallie’s education almost entirely in the hands of her mother, who raises her only daughter to be a rider and warrior.
When war comes, in the form of an army from the Middle Kingdom determined to return with tall, swift steppe horses for the emperor, Kalli is trapped behind city walls like the caged birds kept by her best friend Lila’s mother. She is separated from her other best friend, Batu, who has led some of Kallie’s mother’s herd outside the city. Kalli is also beseiged by her betrothed, Arash, whose arrogance does nothing to ease Kalli’s shyness, and who has clear but unknown intentions towards Kalli’s beloved white mare, Swan.
The Horse Road is a story about relationships. There’s girl and horse: Kalli and Swan, and the other horses. There’s girl and parents/heritage: although Kalli’s parents are absent or injured for most of the tale, they figure strongly in her thoughts, creating a convincingly three-dimensional family background, out of which Kalli negotiates her two (almost three, as her mother and herself have close ties with the nomad tribes near their city home) and conflicting heritages. There is girl and best (female) friend: Kalli is painfully shy in the city, yet despite the marked differences between Kalli and her neighbour Lila, the two girls are close. They make compromises and know each other’s reactions without looking. There’s a marvelous scene where Kalli and Lila play a game with a chosen possession at stake – girls, gambling? Yup. And it is perfectly normal for them. Then there is girl and best (male) friend: in the steppes among the horses, Kalli feels free and strong. Her best friend here is the nomad Batu, who shares her love of horses and mounted games. Lila and Batu could hardly be more different, yet each is a true companion, sticking with Kalli when she needs them most, despite the danger, and even when they do not approve of her decision. There is girl and unknown entity: Kalli and Arash, whom she neither knows nor understands, yet must learn to do both, for the sake of the distant future when they will be married, and for the sake of the present, when she cannot afford to make mistakes.
This is also a book about growing up quickly during war. Kalli doesn’t really come face to face with carnage, but she does face practical problems, such as how to feed a household and stable when prices are soaring in the city. Part of growing up is learning to use all your weapons, doing not what you want or are accustomed to doing, but what works best and what will bring the necessary result. Kalli is almost crippled by her shyness and is uncomfortable among city folk. She uses both weapons — both sides of her heritage, city friend and nomad friend, smooth speech and person as well as equestrian prowess — to win Swan’s life and freedom.
The prose doesn’t soar, but where this book excels is in its practicality. Horses are hard work. They eat a lot, they get injured, they need a lot (a lot a lot) of water to drink. They need exercise, they sometimes spook, they can be mischievous or contrary or unresponsive. Impressive feats on horseback are always harder than they look, and require hours and years of careful, intentional training as horse and rider learn to communicate. The work and attention that Kalli puts into taking care of the mares is evident in the narrative. Hard work is not invisible, which was refreshing and enjoyable to read.
Kalli’s parents’ have solid reasons behind their intentions for her future, and any proposed alternatives must be at least equally viable. Negotiation with several parties plays a role, as do friendship, hard work, and honour. Insta-love has no place in this tale, whether implied or stated. The ending is satisfying.
Lots of action and a clear love for horses (plus historical detail) make this a fun read for middle grade readers who want a little adventure, and especially good for horse-crazy children.
Disclosure: I borrowed my copy from the library. Oh, and also, Troon Harrison is Canadian, so if you want to introduce a little more Can con into your classroom, here you go!