Riders of the Realm. 1, Across the Dark Water, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Riders of the Realm. 1, Across the Dark Water, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez. Illustrations, maps by David McClellan
NYC, HarperCollinsPublishers/Harper, May 2018, hardcover, $16.99 ([xix +] 417 [+4] pages), Kindle $9.99.

Alvarez’s Riders of the Realm trilogy is a followup to her The Guardian Herd tetralogy. The four Young Adult Guardian Herd novels (Starfire, Stormbound, Landfall, and Windborn, published from September 2014 to September 2016) featured the intelligent, talking pegasi (flying horses, despite the FAQ that “being called a ‘horse’ is an insult to a pegasus”) to the west of the giant continent Anok. More exactly, it featured the five herds there of those pegasi (the Sun Herd, Mountain Herd, Snow Herd, Jungle Herd, and Desert Herd), and the two all-powerful black stallion pegasi, Starfire and Nightwing, fighting to the death for their fate.

Riders of the Realm is about the 140 pegasi from those five herds, led by the mare Echofrost and the stallion Hazelwind, who flee Anok altogether for the unknown southern continent across the Dark Water ocean, and what they find there. They declare themselves a new Herd; Storm Herd. Or rather, since their story takes second place, it’s about the civilization there of the two-legged Landwalkers (humans), their enemies like Gorlan giants, spit-dragons, giant ants, burners (miniature flying, fire-breathing dragons), and other creatures – notably, the pegasi that they have already domesticated – and how they are affected by the arrival of the 140 flying-horse refugees from Anok.

Across the Dark Water is two stories: that of 12-year-old human Rahkki, small for his age, the younger brother of Brauk Stormrunner, one of the officers of the Fifth Clan’s Sky Guard; and of Echofrost, a “sleek silver mare with a mix of dark- and light-purple feathers, white mane and tail, one white sock” (p. x). But it’s mostly about Rahkki and the politics of the Sandwen’s Fifth Clan – about the humans.

The first chapter introduces Rahkki, his adult (21 years old) brother Brauk, and Brauk’s Khilari flyer, Kol:

“Overhead, glittering feathers, shining hides, and polished armor blocked out the sun – it was his brother’s squad of Riders, flying back from patrol. Eighty winged horses, each ridden by a Sandwen warrior, glided in formation, their hooves striking the clouds. There were a total of three squads in the Fifth Clan’s Sky Guard, and Brauk Stormrunner was the Headwind of his. The flying steeds were called Khilari, which meant ‘Children of the Wind,’ and they were sacred in the Sandwen Realm.” (pgs. 2-3)

Across the Dark Water is complex; about the political structure and politics of the Sandwen’s Fifth Clan (of seven clans); about the Sandwen’s relationship with the other species of this southern continent; and about these other species. Riders of the Realm is admirably different from the four novels of The Guardian Herd in that it is about flying horses and humans and how they interact, rather than just about flying horses as was the previous tetralogy, but of less interest to furry fans in that there is so much about humans and not the anthro animals.

Also, while Alvarez tells a good story that will hold your interest to the end – and beyond; this first novel of the trilogy ends on a dramatic cliffhanger – there are some aspects that are not really convincing. The humans who talk and the flying horses who whinny and nicker can’t speak or understand each other’s languages; they’re too different. Okay, this is clever. But we’re asked to believe that the humans have domesticated pegasi for 400 years, and haven’t realized that the tamed pegasi’s constant whinnying and nickering to each other, and reacting with intelligence, is a language rather than just dumb animal noises? We’re asked to believe that the Gorlan giants (nine- to twelve-foot tall humans) are considered dangerous dumb brutes, when they have domesticated and ride elephants and have trained the burners? The story is gripping enough that you’ll accept these rough spots, but you will notice them.

Still, there are enough scenes and chapters with the pegasi to make this worthwhile reading for the furry fan:

“She was about to trot off when a shape leaped at her. Echofrost reared back, and it just missed her throat. Growling filled her ears. She kicked off and hovered near the treetops. A black panther snarled up at her. He jumped again, trying to snatch her feathers in his claws.” (p. 74)

“Echofrost flattened her ears. This stallion let Landwalkers ride on his back; who was he to judge her and Shysong?

‘Where did you come from?’ he continued.

Echofrost said nothing. She was thinking.

‘Answer me!’ he brayed.

‘Are you the over-stallion of this herd?’

He paused. ‘Herd? We’re not horses, wildling.’

The surrounding Kihlari nickered, amused.

Echofrost felt her ears grow hot. Didn’t all pegasi live in herds? She felt confused, unsure; but she was the stranger here, not them. She’d have to study their ways. ‘Tell me what you are and I’ll tell you where I came from,’ she bargained.” (p. 93)

“Echofrost glanced down. The Kihlari roof was beginning to open, and the Sky Guard would be on them in moments, but if they didn’t keep flying, she doubted they’d ever get another opportunity to escape.

‘Head to the heights,’ she whinnied, forgetting all about Rahkki, who weighed next to nothing.

Surging higher, Echofrost and Shysong darted into clouds that were huge and billowing, offering them cover. Far below, the Landwalkers scurried like mice. Inside the barn, Riders quickly buckled saddles onto their mounts. ‘Higher,’ Echofrost neighed.

‘But the princess can’t breathe,’ whinnied Shysong, pausing to hover.” (p. 375)

Riders of the Realm. 1, Across the Dark Water (cover by Vivienne To) is illustrated, but as in The Guardian Herd, David McClellan’s illustrations are tiny and almost-generic chapter-heading drawings. The middle volume of the trilogy, Through the Untamed Sky, will be published on March 26, 2019.

Fred Patten

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