Friday, February 14, 2014

ARC Review: The Winter Horses - Philip Kerr

The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr
Genre: YA, historical fiction
Published on March 25, 2014
Published by Knopf Books
Pages: 288
Read From: 2.2.14 - 2.4.14

It will soon be another cold winter in the Ukraine. But it's 1941, and things are different this year. Max, the devoted caretaker of an animal preserve, must learn to live with the Nazis who have overtaken this precious land. He must also learn to keep secret - for there is a girl, Kalinka, who is hiding in the park. 
Kalinka has lost her home, her family, her belongings - everything but her life. Still, she has gained one small, precious gift: a relationship with the rare wild and wily Przewalski's horses that wander the preserve. Aside from Max, these endangered animals are her only friends - until a Nazi campaign of extermination nearly wipes them out for good. 
Now Kalinka must set out on a treacherous journey across the frozen Ukrainian forest to save the only two surviving horses - and herself.


Cover Blurb: Yes or No? I do really like the cover, even if it has a character impersonator on it. She actually works really well for Kalinka, even though I kept picturing her a lot younger than she's supposed to be.

Characters: I didn't really get attached to any of the characters, even though they were all good. Kalinka was a strong young woman who had dealt with a lot of hardship, but she fell a tiny bit flat for me. Her dialogue made her seem much younger than she was, and she took a very "oh well, let's move on" attitude when bad things continued to happen. And it wasn't like she was numb to tragedy, which would logically happen if you had seen as many horrors as she did. She just didn't react. I did like Max, the nature preserve caretaker who started out in the novel welcoming the Nazi invasion because he thought they would appreciate what the nature preserve was trying to do. He was imaging the Nazis to be like the cultured Imperialistic Germans he used to know, and gets quite a shock when the SS troops arrive and start killing the animals for food - and then hunt down the Przewalski's horses simply because they are deemed an inferior horse breed. Max is helpless to protect the animals he loves and he can do nothing but keep his head down and hope the SS don't decide to turn their guns on him. Unfortunately, the "villain" of the novel - an overzealous SS officer (as if there weren't any other kind), wasn't very intimidating. At first, the contrast of a young man who enjoys drawing and riding, but carries out such dreadful orders as gunning down entire villages and exterminating the Przewalski's horses, was a very chilling one. But the Author's attempt to paint the SS troops as average soldiers who had to do unpleasant things didn't work. This is true of the average German soldier; most had to fight and didn't want to. But the SS was a whole different kettle of fish; they were a cult. About the only characters I really attached to were the animals - which, of course, was just setting myself up for emotions. Hard to dislike smart ponies and a loyal dog.

The Romance: There isn't any!

Plot: When the Nazis invade Ukraine, Max is ordered to kill all of the animals on his nature preserve so the enemy can't use them to feed their troops. But Max can't do it, and he is sure that the Nazis will spare the nature preserve and appreciate its function. After all, it was founded by a German before the Bolshevik revolution. But the SS troops aren't Imperialistic Germany, and though their young commanding officer seems a cultured man who values horses, it's not long before they are slaughtering the animals. Worse, orders come from headquarters to exterminate the rare and wild Przewalski's horses, as they are a danger to the breeding line of superior horses. Max is devastated, but he can't do anything to stop the SS as they gun the horses down. Then one night a teenage girl shows up at his doorstep in a snow storm, followed by the last two Przewalski's horses - a mare and stallion. The girl has been hiding out in the reserve since her village was ransacked and her family murdered by the Nazis, and she's made friends with the untamed ponies. Max knows that if the SS find out he's harboring not only these two outlawed horses but a Jewish orphan as well, he'll forfeit his life. Before long, Kalinka finds herself escaping to the ever-encroaching Red Army with the Przewalski's horses, the SS hot on her trail. It's only a matter of time before she's caught. The premise of The Winter Horses is amazing, and I cried a lot during this book. But there was just some unlikely moments, and while I generally am not prone to criticizing "miracle stories," it somehow just didn't work in this one. The whimsy wasn't there; it was just unbelievable and dare I say it - a little silly. A poor attempt at a remarkable story with miracle moments.

Believability: Ponies are smart - I will be the first to agree with that statement. I live with three very intelligent Welsh ponies who understand far more than you would expect and are problem solvers. I have heard that Przewalski's ponies are incredibly smart, and it doesn't surprise me. But the level of intelligence they display in this book is a little much. Maybe it was the way it was presented, but it made the story feel a little hokey and like an overly inspirational horse story.

Writing Style: Third person, past tense. This is my real complaint of the book. The writing was very juvenile. This isn't an older YA book, but definitely a YA book, and the writing was just childish. The dialogue was blocky and often only there to explain current events to a Reader that might not know anything about WWII. The characters would know, so why would they be explaining it to each other? The Author tried too hard to make this a miracle story filled with whimsy and magical moments of incredible bravery and luck. I think the reason this failed is mostly due to writing. There was something lacking in the style that kept The Winter Horses from sweeping me up in its magic. Maybe this should have been first person - maybe told from one of the ponies' perspectives. Or maybe there should have been more of an omnipotent narrator, so we got a third person narration, but it still kind of felt like a first person one. Either way, it just didn't work for me and took away from the entire book.

Content: Dead horses - pretty upsetting for anyone who loves animals and especially horses. Yes, you will cry.

Conclusion: The end didn't surprise me; it couldn't have gone any other way, and it was actually rather happy. But I hated it. [Spoiler] Why did the dog have to die? Why?! That was just such an unnecessary death! There was no reason for it! Wasn't it sad enough when he started howling when Max was shot? He had to die, too? [End spoiler] The Winter Horses wasn't necessarily a bad book, and I think there will be plenty who will like it. But for me, it fell flat of my expectations.

Recommended Audience: Girl-and-guy read, fourteen-and-up. Fans of WWII novels and animal novels like War Horse will like it, and adults especially will enjoy this particular YA novel.

1 comment:

  1. Jaycees Horses For Healing


Thank you for visiting The Reading Hedgehog! The hedgie and I love hearing from our readers, so please feel free to leave a comment or question! I always try to reply within a day or two. Please keep all comments civil and clean.