REVIEW: Airs and Graces by Toby Bishop
Dear Ms. Bishop,
I 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-