Book Review: The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
Verity Grey is a 29-year-old freelance archaeologist, newly resigned from the British Museum and ready for a new assignment. When invited to interview for a secret new project in the Scottish Borderlands, Verity is intrigued… and intrigue turns to shock when she finds out the purpose of the dig. Peter Quinnell, considered by many to have detoured from the straight path of sanity in the wake of personal tragedies, is on the hunt for the fabled Ninth Roman Legion, which disappeared without a trace centuries earlier somewhere in the Northern British Isles. Peter thinks he’s found the Ninth at last, and he wants Verity on his team. His evidence? The say-so of a psychic 8-year-old boy, who reports seeing the ghostly figure of “The Sentinel”, a lonely Roman soldier who wanders the moors, beckoning young Robbie to discover his secrets.
Naturally, Verity joins the dig, and we are quickly wrapped up in both the archaeological explorations and the interpersonal dramas of the team. Verity has never put much stock in the supernatural, but she can’t shrug off the strange sounds she hears at night, the unexplained cold breezes that she encounters in warm rooms, or the uncanny ability that Robbie displays in reading her thoughts and predicting events. Also drawing Verity in is local boy turned archaeologist David Fortune, whose brawny good looks and easy charm are awfully hard to ignore. Just wait until that man puts on a kilt!
The premise sounded quite interesting to me, but unfortunately, I have to say that the book as a whole didn’t quite work for me the way I’d hoped. It should have been fascinating: I’ve always been interested in the story of the Ninth Roman Legion, and expected to get much deeper into their story in The Shadowy Horses. Disappointingly, that wasn’t the case. While the fate of the Ninth is explored, the discoveries at the dig didn’t strike me as earth-shattering or definitive, and I wish there had been more time spent on the character of the Sentinel.
Likewise, the relationships among the members of the team, while interesting, didn’t feel particularly high-stakes to me. By the time the climax of the book rolled around, with a dramatic turn of events and a potential calamity, I never really felt that the main characters were truly in peril, and the revelations of secrets and betrayals were not at all surprising.
Still, The Shadowy Horses does have a lot going for it. First of all, Susanna Kearsley is a gorgeous writer, and she is a master when it comes to conveying the mysteries of the British Isles, evoking the wildness of the landscapes and the beauty of the moors and coasts. I also enjoyed the insider’s peek into the world of archaeological digs, learning about the tools and methodologies of the scientists involved and seeing how a project of this nature might unfold. The characters are nicely developed, and I was interested in getting to know them — and truly wished them all their happy endings.
The Shadowy Horses is the fourth book I’ve read by Susanna Kearsley, and while good, I just didn’t feel that it measures up to her other books. Perhaps I simply missed the “time-slip” elements for which she is known, which lend her books their heightened urgency and intense romance. Susanna Kearsley has a new book due out in June — The Firebird — which I understand includes characters from both The Shadowy Horses and her beautiful novel The Winter Sea. While The Shadowy Horses fell a bit flat for me, that does not at all mean that I won’t be checking out this author’s future writing. I really look forward to reading The Firebird as soon as it becomes available in the US — and if you’ve never read anything by this gifted author, I’d suggest starting with The Winter Sea or Marianna.