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REVIEW: Airs and Graces by Toby Bishop

Dear Ms. Bishop,

044101556501mzzzzzzz.jpgI have two confessions to make. First, I haven’t read the first novel in your Horsemistress trilogy. This is one of the major criticisms of the fantasy genre. Most books are part of a trilogy or series, and many times you can’t read them out of order without becoming hopelessly confused. Sometimes I think that’s why urban fantasy has more crossover appeal than other types of fantasy. Because while you can read Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series out of order, you can’t do that with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. So I knew I was taking a risk by jumping into the middle of a trilogy. That said, I’m pleased to say that while it’s obvious there’s a book that preceded this and a book to follow, it stood very well on its own.

Confession #2: I’m a longtime fantasy reader. I’ve been reading them since I was a teen. And one of the types I enjoyed reading back then falls into the category known as animal companion fantasy. Probably the best known example of this kind of fantasy is Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. I, on the other hand, was an ardent fan of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, which were about misunderstood teenagers who bonded to telepathic white horses and saved the world.

So when I realized your Horsemistress trilogy was about girls who bonded to flying horses to defend their country, I became cautious. Were we treading on familiar ground? While I loved the Valdemar series as a teenager, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t outgrow them. They simply don’t read as well to me now as they did when I was 13. But to my surprise, I discovered this wasn’t anything like the Valdemar books and brought a little something new to the field.

Larkyn Hamley was once a simple farmgirl but after she accidentally bonds to a newborn flying horse, she finds herself at the Academy, where the bonded girls and horses learn how to ride and fly in preparation for service to their country. I think this is one of the areas where the book shines. It’s obvious you have some knowledge about riding horses in formations and drills, and a part of me feels guilty that my ignorance prevented me from fully appreciating these details.

I also enjoyed the school setting. Parts of it reminded me of the Saddle Club series, which I also read as a child, and I liked seeing the various interactions Lark has with her peers. From what I inferred, Lark’s struggles to fit in at the Academy are the focus of the first book. (Most Horsemistresses are of noble birth, so Lark’s farmgirl upbringing was a strike against her.) But in this book, she’s more or less settled into Academy life and is one of its favored student riders. I enjoyed her friendship with the nobly born Hester, and I especially liked the introduction of the diplomat’s daughter, Amelia, to whom Lark is assigned as sponsor. Amelia is the sort of character I love — reserved, aloof and smart, but still a girl who’s dreamt of one thing since she was little and is now about to realize it.

One thing that spoils the book, now that I’m older, is that I can’t help but notice the questionable bonding rules. Here, the flying horses can only bond to girls and are unable to tolerate the presence of human males who’ve reached puberty. I definitely see the bonds preferring girls over boys as an empowerment thing. But where it inches into questionable territory is the fact the bonded girls can’t get pregnant because doing so causes their horse to die. As a result, the Horsemistresses can’t have families until their bondmate reaches the end of its natural life and by then, the women are physically unable to have children. Maybe I’ve read too many animal companion fantasies but am I reading into the phallic symbolism there?

But for me, the book’s main weakness is that it reads like two smaller books stitched together. Lark’s antagonist is Duke William, a man who’s devoted his life to ruining the Horsemistresses because his father ignored him as a child in favor of the women and their flying horses. To do this, William illegally breeds flying horses in an attempt to create a line that will tolerate men, even if it also means having to transform his own body into that of a woman. It’s a disastrous obsession because he focuses his attention on his project and not on ruling and his subjects’ welfare. For the first half of the book, we see this neglect in action when a fishing village is raided by barbarians and Duke William does nothing in response, even when two children are kidnapped. But this conflict is resolved midway through the book and the second half is devoted to the Duke’s increasing obsession, madness, and its effect on the court. While fine as separate storylines, there’s a noticeable shift as the plot switches from one to the other.

My other complaint — and perhaps it’s another hallmark of the subgenre because I recall the same thing characterizing the Valdemar books — is that the lines between good and evil are clearly delineated and there is no doubt who stands where. The good guys all have flaws but their characters are essentially noble and well-intentioned. The bad guys rape, kill, pillage, steal, and show no remorse and regret for their actions. I admit I prefer more moral ambiguity in my fantasy reading these days.

While there are loose ends left to be resolved in the third book, I appreciate the fact that Airs and Graces stands on its own and that my not having read the first book didn’t make it impossible to understand this one. I’m sure I missed some details and references, but you’ve interested me enough in this world and characters that I’m going to look up the first book and see what I missed. B-

My regards,

This book can be purchased in mass market or ebook format.

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!


  1. Amanda
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 10:35:22

    Have you read Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette’s A Companion to Wolves? You’ll never be able to read animal companion fantasies the same way again. It is definitely *not* romance!

  2. Jane
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 11:37:35

    Amanda – I tried to read that book but was confounded by the characters’ names – all those dogs, their pups, the people. Oy.

  3. Jia
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 12:19:14

    Amanda: I haven’t read Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s collaboration yet, but I have heard a lot about how it subverts the various animal companion fantasy tropes and conventions. It’s on my list of books to get, if I ever manage to make a dent in my to-be-reviewed shelf.

  4. Amanda
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 13:28:08

    Jane, the names were really confusing. I really wish the authors had skipped the whole name-change-after-bonding thing, because it just made it worse. I’m glad I read it in one sitting, because if I’d put it down and come back to it I’m sure I would have been completely lost. Even with all that, I’m glad I read it. I’m not sure if I’d say it was enjoyable, but it was thought-provoking and interesting.

  5. Nicole
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 21:18:18

    Oh, I read and liked the first book in this series. I’d forgotten that the second was coming out. Will have to get it.

    Also, did you know this is Louise Marley? I read one of her books and really enjoyed it.

  6. Jia
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 21:24:35

    Nicole: I did, actually! That’s why I made sure to tag this post under Louise Marley as well. Unfortunately, I haven’t read any of her novels under that name but now I’m curious and plan to look those up too.

  7. Nicole
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 21:27:04

    It’s been awhile, but The Terrorists of Irustan is the one I remember as being good.

    Completely missed the Louise Marley tag. :-)

  8. Jia
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 09:46:59

    Nicole: Thanks for the tip! I see she writes a fair bit of feminist themes in her books, as well as utilizes settings that differ from the usual faux medieval. That definitely piques my interest more since those are things I prefer in my SF/F.

  9. Shannon C.
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 04:06:35

    This sounds interesting. I sort of like the idea of the girl-power theme of the horses only bonding with women, and I suspect I’d like this book.

    I’ve also noticed the lack of moral ambiguity you mentioned. In fact, I blogged about that a couple of years ago, though I’m too lazy to look up the link. :P Anyway, I have always wondered what keeps truly nasty–or at least petty, selfish people–from having an uberspecial animal friend of their very own.

  10. Adriane
    Jun 30, 2008 @ 15:22:15

    I loved the first book and couldn’t wait for the second. She’s very creative with her themes, and while I do wish as well that some of the people had a more gray area for depth I feel that William’s twisted view of the world has a lot more gray to it than people think.

    Animal companion books always get to me, too. One of my favorites was the “Unlikely Ones” by Mary Brown. I highly recommend it.

    The fact the girls can’t marry and have children does make me sad though. Perhaps the third book will have Lark discover a way past that. If not, I will still love the books. Now I can’t wait for the 3rd!


  11. BlueRose
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 04:47:35

    I just read this book today, funnily enough. The bit about the pregnancy wasnt very clear in this book, but here is the gist of it

    – the bond is for life – if the horse dies the human may or may not survive it, but if the human dies, the horse will go mad and need to be put down

    – pregnancy interferes with the bond, and the horse begins to go mad

    It clearly suffered from middlebookitis re the two different themes, which is a shame but I liked it and am looking forward to reading the 3rd one if my library ever gets it in.

    FYI I rather like the concept that the bond between horse and woman is permanent and lasting and to each other. Too many books end up with marriage and compromise and other things, I like the concept that these women can make a life long choice and be honoured for such, not pitied.

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