by Mary H. Herbert.
This novel was first published in 1990, but I only got my hand on it some 6 months ago. (Although I know one should not judge the book by its cover, I took one look at the cover of this paper back, and thought: 'This is crap'. I shall not endeavour to describe the picture, but if I hadn't had so much confidence in the person who recommended the book... well, I would never have read it.)
The story unfolds in a fantasy setting. (Imagine, if you will, the plains and valleys of untamed Wales or Scotland). People live in large clans or tribes, each ruled by a chieftain or wer-tain, not answerable to any king or emperor. There are twelve clans of differing size and might, and the hero - or heroine - comes from one of the smallest clans.
We first meet her, Gabria, sitting on a rock in the wild, mourning the slaughtering of her people. Her whole tribe has been put to death by one power-crazed chieftain, Lord Medb, as the first step on his way to gain total power over all twelve (now eleven) clans. As the sole survivor (due to the fact that she was out in the woods at the time of attack) she swears to claim wer-geld for her family and clan. There is one big hurdle she must overcome, though: a woman cannot do this. So she must come up with a cunning plan. And, yes, the cunning plan is to impersonate a boy!
She disguises herself as her own twin brother, Gabran, and seeks out her mother's clan. There she plans to become a warrior, and, in the end, kill Medb. But on her way to her mother's clan she rescues a large horse, a Hunnuli. A creature of the gods, the black Hunnuli decide who rides them and who doesn't. They cannot abide evil, and they can speak in their rider's mind. Nifty. The horse, Nara, decides to aid Gabria, and she even lets her ride (in this male dominated society women are not allowed to ride the Hunnuli).
In this world, magic is looked upon as the greatest of all evils. In olden days, mages used their powers for evil, so when the mages were finally overcome, magic was forbidden. Gabria has been raised to fear and loathe magic, but as the story unfolds she is terrified to discover that she is a born sorceress.
Living with her mother's tribe she trains for the one task: killing Lord Medb. Keeping her true identity a secret is not easy, and she must endure many hardships before she, in the end, meets her foe in a rather terrific last battle.
The title refers both to the black Hunnuli, and to the fact that Gabria is quite the dark horse in the clans' fight against the tyranny of Lord Medb. The plot seems very old and worn, but it is handled in an elegant way. It is interesting to note how Mary H. Herbert does not let her heroine rebel against the patriarchal world she lives in; Gabria comes across as a product of her world, and she fights with the means at hand. This helps make her character very believable, and even the inevitable love story is romatic - in a rough-and-tumble kind of way.1
It is Mary H. Herbert's first novel, but by no means her last. She has written five books about Gabria:
- Dark Horse (1990)
- Lightning's Daughter (1991)
- Valorian (1993)
- City of Sorcerers (1994)
- Winged Magic (1996)
Other books from her hand:
- Legacy of Steel (1998)
- The Clandestine Circle (2000)
- Bertrem's Guide to the War of Souls (2001, Jeff Crook, Mary H. Herbert, Nancy Varian Berberick)
- Dragon's Bluff (2001)
- City of the Lost (2003)
I liked "Dark Horse" to the point where I read it a second time (for this review), and I heartily recommend it. It is a good book (maybe not a great book, but a really good book) and well worth reading.
Check out Mary H. Herbert's profile on this site.
- In-depth analysis is not a thing I do well, so I'll leave this task to someone else...