Malora knows what she was born to be: a horse wrangler and a hunter, just like her father. But when her people are massacred by batlike monsters called Leatherwings, Malora will need her horse skills just to survive. The last living human, Malora roams the wilderness at the head of a band of magnificent horses, relying only on her own wits, strength, and courage. When she is captured by a group of centaurs and taken to their city, Malora must decide whether the comforts of her new home and family are worth the parts of herself she must sacrifice to keep them.
One of my hard limits in fiction is animal death. That doesn’t mean werewolf death, because weres are humans too. It means the death of Sookie’s cat really, really upset me. It’s the reason I can’t seem to finish The Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The beginning of this one was rough for me, and I’ll admit I had to skim a little. So Malora watches her father and all the men carried off by Leatherwings, which come back later to finish the rest of the People off. Malora’s mother tells her to run and stay to the south because of an ancient enemy to the north. So naturally, Malora runs and goes to the north. She inevitably runs into the centaurs, the ancient enemy, who proceed to drown half her horses in a canyon and then capture her. I liked that this intro happened quickly. Ross doesn’t drag out the introductions to Malora’s parents or her people, and the story of the Leatherwings begins and ends in about 40 pages. I liked it. It was much more fast-paced than the first in a series usually is. The only downside to this quick intro is that Malora seems unnervingly willing to join with these centaurs, who just killed half the herd she spend three years building. I feel like Malora’s loneliness outweighs how she feels about her herd. And I’m nervous about where this is going to go, as the herd was captured to be used in a race. I am more wary of these silly-seeming centaurs than Malora.
What happens after this is a whole lot of telling instead of showing. Orion, a centaur noble, basically gives Malora an oral history of his people and their land thereby landing the reader in Exposition Junction (something I usually use to refer to TV). Pages and pages of descriptions of centaurs and their city, but what I would have liked to have seen was Malora discovering these things on her own. Couldn’t she have been dazzled by the female centaurs upon entrance to the city? Couldn’t she have asked questions instead of getting it all fed to her by Orion a measly 24 hours after her capture? And why isn’t she more upset? It all sat very strangely with me. Malora doesn’t have much of a personality outside of being a “wild child.” She’s the last human, but when she hears stories of how humans hunted centaurs, she feels sorry for the centaurs. I never even got the feeling that she cared for her horses when Ross goes to great lengths to present her as the Horse Whisperer. I hated how she called the horses “the boys and girls.” I don’t know why. It just grated on me. And the Twani? It felt like a replay of the house elves from Harry Potter. I wanted a whole book on the Twani instead of the centaurs, who were silly and shallow. As the book progressed, I also felt more and more like this is a middle-grade novel, not YA. This is fine for me, as I read middle-grade fiction a lot, but most people like to know what they’re getting themselves into, you know? I’m not sure how this one would be marketed.
Malora does seem to have her own sense of self, at least. Or she will until she’s absorbed into centaur society. At the end of chapter eleven, when she learns she “belongs” to Orion, she says, “I’m nobody’s but my own.” So there’s that, which is a lot more than 90% of YA heroines ever think about themselves. (And I did find myself wondering what kind of inter-species romance would spring from this unholy human-centaur alliance, but this book is romance free.) Orion’s father, the leader of the centaurs, basically confiscates her horses and lets Malora stay on probation. He says a lot of true things about Malora being a “living symbol” that people will rally around if given the chance. There’s a lot of talk of “civilizing” her. This is the beginning of the loss of Malora’s sense of self, and she’s realizing it. She wonders, at the end of chapter thirteen, “Is all of this really worth the price of a soft bed, good food, fine clothes, and lively talk?” We soon meet Zephele, Orion’s sister, and she grates on my last nerve with her chatty, unwitting superiority, but as a friend for Malora, she’s fine. Zephele is another source of constant exposition. She and Malora talk, but really, it’s about giving the reader information about the centaurs and their city. Lots of info-bombs are dropped by the Silvermane siblings.
It’s a crying shame that Neal Featherhoof isn’t introduced until the end because he is fantastic. He makes all the exposition of the Silvermanes worth it, though he does a fair amount of explaining himself. We learn that the Highlanders we’ve seen for three quarters of the novel are living privileged, frivolous lives while the Lowlanders are living in poverty and squalor. The plot has appeared! I thought we were going to be stuck reading lessons about TS Eliot poems forever! Something that bothered me, though, is that it takes Malora way too long to visit her horses, and when she finally does, she finds they’re being abused. This is what I meant by not feeling like Malora had any emotional attachment to her horses. I understand that she’s wrapped up in luxury for the first time, but she’s really not living up to this Daughter of the Plains ideal she (or Ross) has of herself.
The ending wraps things up nicely, with some twists. I assume (or hope) the next novel will explore the differences between the High and Lowlanders, Malora’s new Hand, and the future of her Furies. There are hints of a romance to come in the next novel(s) as well. I think the story got better the further along it went, but it didn’t pull off quite what it wanted. (I just want to clarify that I am using GoodReads’ star system (two stars = it was okay) as opposed to Amazon’s star system (two stars = I didn’t like it).)