Book Review: The Shadowy Horses

Book Review: The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley

The Shadowy HorsesVerity 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.

Wishlist Wednesday

And now, for this week’s Wishlist Wednesday…

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Please consider adding the blog hop button to your blog somewhere, so others can find it easily and join in too! Help spread the word! The code will be at the bottom of the post under the linky.
  • Pick a book from your wishlist that you are dying to get to put on your shelves.
  • Do a post telling your readers about the book and why it’s on your wishlist.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to pen to paper (http://vogue-pentopaper.blogspot.com) somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
(originally published 1997; new edition to be released October 2012)

From Amazon:

The invincible Ninth Roman Legion marches from York to fight the northern tribes. And then vanishes from the pages of history.

Archaeologist Verity Grey has been drawn to the dark legends of the Scottish Borderlands in search of the truth buried in a rocky field by the sea.

Her eccentric boss has spent his whole life searching for the resting place of the lost Ninth Roman Legion and is convinced he’s finally found it—not because of any scientific evidence, but because a local boy has “seen” a Roman soldier walking in the fields, a ghostly sentinel who guards the bodies of his long-dead comrades.

Here on the windswept shores, Verity may find the answer to one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time. Or she may uncover secrets someone buried for a reason.

Why do I want to read this?

I’ve recently read two other books by Susanna Kearsley: The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden. Both were exceptionally well-crafted novels which combined a contemporary story with an historical twist — they’ve been described as “time slip” novels, where the main character finds herself displaced into another time period and must struggle to fit in, solve a mystery, or both. The author has a lovely flair for describing settings such as Scottish castles and Welsh countrysides, and her characters are fully developed with rich inner lives and deeply-felt emotions.

Based on my previous experiences with her work, I’d be happy to give The Shadowy Horses a try. The description really appeals to me as well: I’m grown quite fond of stories set in and around Scotland, I love good historical fiction, and I find the story of the disappearance of the Ninth Roman Legion quite fascinating. I know the fate of the legion has inspired other works of fiction and, most recently, the movie “The Eagle” (with Channing Tatum), and I’m sure Ms. Kearsley is more than up to the task of giving us a fresh take on one of history’s great unsolved mysteries.

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!