To cure a book slump, I decided to revisit the Chronicles of Narnia series. I grew up with the books as a kid, but I'd never actually finished the series to completion. Conveniently, I happen to own a stack of them that I purchased from a thrift shop a few years ago on a whim. To make things extra interesting, I'm reading the books in chronological order instead of publication order, which means that some of the lesser-known books like THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW & THE HORSE AND HIS BOY come before the better-known sequels like PRINCE CASPIAN.
THE HORSE AND HIS BOY is set during the time period when Lucy, Susan, Edmund, and Peter were ruling Narnia after defeating the White Witch, but for most of the book it isn't actually set in Narnia, but Calormen, one of the other countries. The hero of this book is a boy named Shasta who lives with an abusive father. When he learns that his "father" plans to sell him off to a racial stereotype of an evil Middle Eastern man, called a Tarkaan (which seems to be fantasy-speak for "Turk"), he decides to run off with the man's horse.
Shasta finds out that the horse, whose name is Bree, was born in Narnia and can talk. Soon, he finds himself pursued by an assailant on horseback - until he finds out said assailant is a girl, and then he's like, "Hyuk, hyuk, you're a girl, wow, I'm not afraid of you anymore." The girl's name is Aravis and her horse, who is also from Narnia and can also talk, is named Hwin. Aravis is escaping her fate as a child bride to another Middle Eastern stereotype.
Their flight takes them to the capital of Calormen, which is called Tashbaan. There, Shasta discovers a plot by the son of the king there to bridenap Susan, and he calls her a whore a couple times (literally "false jade" but we all know what he means), before announcing his plans to conquer first Archenland (another one of the lesser-known countries in Narnia-land) and then Narnia itself. In a GAME OF THRONES-esque twist, the prince's father says he's totally okay with this and will totally support him if he succeeds, but if the plan fails, he's going to deny knowledge of it and basically destroy his future to punish him. The prince agrees, because he's so certain his evil plan will work.
Spoiler: his evil plan does not work.
Aslan also makes an appearance and if you thought he was a judgy sh*t in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, just wait until you see him bring the punishment in THE HORSE AND HIS BOY. He scratches up Aravis's back to punish her for getting her evil stepmother's spy whipped, even though the spy was helping to make her life miserable and being complicit in Aravis's being married off as a child bride. He also punishes Prince Rapadash (the one who wanted to rape Susan) by turning him into a donkey and then basically putting him under house arrest by cursing him so that if he ever ventures more than ten miles past his homeland, he will never be able to assume his human form again. That's pretty harsh considering that none of the other bad people in this book get punished and it seems like Aslan's only bringing the pain because Rapadash threatened one of his favorites - kind of like that soccer mom who bursts into the principal's office screaming "NOT MY CHILD!" at any sort of real or imagined slight, and yet never attends any PTA meetings.
Also, apparently he can shape-shift.
If not for the appearance of Aslan, I never would have believed this book to be a part of the Narnia cannon. It's pretty to see why this book never got a movie adaptation. The Pevensie children appear only briefly - and not as children, but adults. The focus is on characters who, to my knowledge, never appear again in the narrative. Plus, the weird bridenapping plot and Middle Eastern stereotypes make it feel like C.S. Lewis got really drunk and forgot he was writing a fantasy novel for kids, got halfway through a bodice ripper, remembered what he was doing, and then finished it with a neat, children's parable-type morality-heavy ending without taking out any of the bodice-rippery elements.
Don't get me wrong - I thought this book was hi-larious, but I love bodice-rippers and entertained to see a portray of a Middle East-type setting that appeared to borrow heavily from E.M. Hull's THE SHEIK (while employing the same amount of cultural sensitivity, to boot). That said, THE HORSE AND HIS BOY is entirely skippable.
3.5 out of 5 stars