A Whisper of Horses
Reviewed by Simon (Daddy Worm)
Last year, I fell head over heels in love with The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, Zillah Bethell’s second MG-flavoured book with Piccadilly Press. Bethell is a master of storytelling; her narrative style is effortless; the plot lines are inventive and clever; her characters feel so authentic they could be members of your extended family. A Whisper of Horses was her first novel for children and was given a paperback release in January.
At this moment in time, it’s not possible for me to like another book more than Auden Dare, but A Whisper of Horses is another fantastic read. Similar to Auden Dare, it’s also set in the future. I’m not sure if Bethell approves of her books being called “dystopian” (adj. relating to or denoting an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one); I believe in America they refer to them as “futuristic adventure fantasy” – possibly a more fitting description although Bethell’s imagined future is run by a controlling government adept in propaganda. The future in ‘Horses’ is certainly environmentally degraded: there have been big changes in the landscapes caused by poisonous gases – the sky is a different colour and many indigenous plants have been killed. The language has evolved too – the names of places mutated into strange phonetic versions of towns, cities, rivers and landmarks we think we know. Serendipity, our main character, lives in the walled city of Lahn Dan where a caste system is strictly enforced and controlled by The Ministry.
Before her mother died, Seren was given a clue to the existence of horses (thought now to be extinct) and she vows to escape the city and embark on a quest across ‘Grey Britain’ in search of these beautiful and elusive creatures. The now clichéd quote from Arthur Ashe about the journey being more important than the destination rings true as Serendipity’s road-trip brings new friends, learning, peril, understanding, resilience, realisation. And these virtues are bestowed on the reader too as one finds oneself questioning society, class, the role of technology and democracy. This is not a journey without danger – this is a pursuit as Serendipity is hunted by the lawmakers who are desperate to stop her from achieving her goal – but why?
A Whisper of Horses is a thoroughly enjoyable read with an enthralling story and one that makes you ponder and contemplate too. I particularly enjoyed the relationships in Auden Dare and the same is true here – Seren’s friendship with Tab, her companion on the journey, is rich and warm and discerning.
So this seems to be no cure for my Zillah Bethell fascination (bethellitis?), and I’ve left it some time before posting this review to be sure that I’m compos mentis. Bethell is such a glorious writer I want to stand on top of my space-age pod-home and shout it out to this oppressed and inhumane world.