Monday, January 04, 2010

Year of the Horse

(cross posted here)

Year of the Horse

Written by Justin Allen
Overlook Press
For ages 10 and above

Year of the Horse’ takes some very familiar threads in young adult fiction –a young protagonist with a destiny he must fulfill, a quest for hidden treasure, a dangerous landscape peppered with formidable foes and unlikely allies- to weave an engrossing coming of age tale replete with both wisdom and edge-of-the-seat moments.

In a foreword to this rollicking tale, author Allen gleefully alerts his young readers to the unpleasantness that lies ahead, not wanting to “.. begrudge (them).. the opportunity to engage the sometimes shocking realities of history”. Fair warning indeed, for the roller coaster ride this book offers its readers, young and old alike, across the untamed and dangerous landscape of North America in the years following the Civil War. The book spares no punches in its gritty, often brutal, account of one young Chinese American boy’s experiences on a hunt for treasure, guarded by forces more formidable than anything he could imagine. Allen deftly weaves folklore and fantasy into this adventure, that also goes on to make a powerful statement about what it means to be American (or, indeed, a member of any community) regardless of one’s colour or creed.

For fourteen year old Chinese American Tzu-lu (or Lu, as he is soon rechristened) it’s just another day, working at his homework in his grandfather’s shop in the little town of St Frances. But a few hours later, a strange visitor leads him away on an even more mysterious voyage that he feels ill-prepared for. This visitor is Jack Straw, a famed gunslinger, who quickly becomes Dumbledore to Lu’s timid Harry, Gandalf to his reluctant Frodo – the wise teacher and father figure who grooms Lu for the task he is destined for. They are also joined by a ragtag group of travelling companions with whom he must struggle to survive not just hostile Indians and murderous Mormon settlers, but also the unrelenting harshness of the continent they must cross on horseback.

The book scores on pace, and its evocative descriptions of the terrain the group journeys through. Also the increasingly grim circumstances the group must confront - a horse literally dissolves in a pool of acid ; an amorous Mormon preacher attacks them in a bid to abduct their lone female comrade; and death, when it finally catches up with them, takes its toll on the weary travellers. Racism is never far away either ; Lu and his friends are regularly taunted , their identity and ‘Americaness’ questioned . Allen tempers the harsh reality of these scenes with enough humour and suspense to keep the reader hooked.

This is a book full of finely etched characters, right from the protagonist and his companions to the people they meet along the way. Yet , some things struck me as unconvincing . Lu and his companions seem strangely compatible, despite their cultural and political differences. The outcome of the book hinges rather conveniently on a gift to Lu from one of the several mysterious strangers he meets through the course of the book, each more clued in on his journey and its purpose than most of his group. Are there greater forces at work here, helping to tilt the balance in favour of Lu and his friends – no one ever stops to consider this . Jack Straw never explains the true nature of their foe to his friends, and they never seek to question him either, until prodded gently by one of Lu’s acquaintances. When they do, Straw abruptly disappears, leaving them an ancient notebook to draw their conclusions from, so that they are greatly unprepared for what is to follow. And Lu, when he is finally told about the circumstaces surrounding his father’s death, seems strangely untouched, never once pausing to grieve, rage or even reflect upon it.

For all the issues I had with the book, 'Year of the Horse' is still a riveting read. It also redeems itself with a cracker of a showdown, a very satisfying solution to the mystery of the treasure, and enough tantalizing clues to suggest the possibility of a sequel.

Image courtesy:Flipkart


Choxbox said...

That sounds like some serious action! Thanks, will hunt for it.

Praba Ram said...

An equally absorbing review. Enjoyed every word. Thanks, WJ!

Personally, I am a huge fan of YA novels, and especially ones that revolve around "cross-cultural themes-involving-a-protagonist". And fantasy and folklore in the same package...oh dear, how fascinating! Will check it out for myself. :-)

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