Judith Tarr has always been one of my favorite epic fantasy writers, bested only by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In fact, I think thats why I enjoy Tarrs books so much; both authoresses have a deep knowledge of all old things, and the skills to paint masterpieces with words. Tarrs stories focus on a specific character, a specific set of events, and less on the overall encompassing story as Bradley does, but theyre not less powerful for the different perspective. In fact, its like another side to the same story. And I do love old-world, Goddess-centered stories.
Now to review the book. Lady of Horses is a vivid story about young Sparrow combating both gender norms and her own personal demons to find acceptance and be herself. The novel is kind of Native American in feel, though theres a lot that suggests the setting and culture were more a mix of several realities rather than just based on one.
I love the characters. You can tell from the start that Sparrow and Keen are going to be key players, even though they are never in full accord. The two are friends from the get go, but not best friends like we think of inseparable teenagers today. They are individuals who happen to enjoy each others company and have a sense of kinship, but they see things very differently. Keen is interesting to start with because shes not a rebel, a foil to Sparrows character. Shes strange to the People in that Walker doesnt follow custom and take more than one wife and its marked on that either hes just strange or theres something special about her. But shes just there, happy with her existence and her lot in life. Then, as the story progress, shes angered and her character starts to develop; she stands up for herself and doesnt take Walkers crap. Once she has truly broken with the White Stone people, I thought for sure she would be the one to kill Walker, because aside from Sparrow, he has done the most harm to her. But she isnt, and having finished the book, I see why. But I digress into too much of a spoiler already.
Wolfcub is also interesting because hes a mix of sympathy with Sparrow and also a subtle enforcer of the system she so obviously questions and disdains. He never out right tries to lord his power over her, but he doesnt shy away from the customs and mens laws that privilege him. Hes not really antagonistic, but he could be viewed as a bad guy. The start of his new life in the Grey Horse tribe as Kestrel shows a great contrast between the two lifestyles divided by the river. Hes gone from a world where one man can own several women to a tribe where no one owns anyone else. I think a lot of the difference is best summed up by another character, Cloud, who says, Women are the embodiment of the Earth Mother, and men, the Skyfather. Do you give away the earth under your feet? Do you value it so little?
As for plot, I feel like Keen is the one youre supposed to keep an eye on because of how she grows. At first, she is a model part of this patriarchal world, then she encounters the pitfalls, the inequalities, the lack of relationship that that toxic male role often creates; then she breaks with it; then she learns about stillness and emptying herself and becomes the Earth Mothers daughter. Then she finds a world that is entirely different from what she knew growing up. The dialogue too helps to build contrast between the two cultures and the characters within each. One person is angry to have his values flaunted, another is coolly rational and fair, always in this rotating fashion that shows the different realities.
And finally, the most powerful part of the story is the rites of old, and the justice too. The rites and ways to power are hard to ignore because theyre so brutal. By the start of the story, human sacrifice might have fallen out of favor but it never truly went away, and that foreshadows for later on. This rite and other facets of Sparrows walk to power makes you re-evaluate your existence in relation to the earth and the spirits, and gives a different spin on death. In Sparrows time, death isnt necessarily something bad. It literally is just a part of the circle. So being sent on in a sacrifice to the gods isnt a bad thing like we would think of it. Its hard to wrap the mind around. But thats part of why Lady of Horses is so good. I recommend this read, like all of Tarrs other books Ive gotten my hands on, especially to those interested in old-world fantasies with strong characters.