You know how there’s this one genre that we call “swords and horses” fantasy? It’s a heck of a thing. They’re kind of the PB&J of old-school fantasy: tasty, familiar, and they go so well together. But it’s not exactly an even relationship, is it?
I mean, the swords – let’s be real, The Sword – gets all kinds of literary limelight. It’s got a name, a big ol’ backstory, some awesomesweet epic powers, and probably a good chunk of the hero’s destiny riding around in its carbon-steel interior. More often than not, that sucker actually drives the plot.
So why no love for the horses? Size, sex, color, and that’s it. Maybe a name, if it’s going to be a long-term fixture, and not stolen by goblins or eaten by were-possums at the end of the first act. But unless the horse is some kind of magical creature (with a big tip o’ the hat to Misty Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series!), you can almost guarantee that it’s just a half-ton inventory item – as if only the fantasy elements of a fantasy story are allowed to be interesting or important.
I vote we change that. And I think a lot of writers would be up for trying – it’s just that we’re not really sure how. After all, most of us don’t live within thirty miles of a horse, nevermind own or ride one. The only time pop culture shows them to us as characters in their own right is either when they’re the focal point of the story (Black Beauty, Seabiscuit, etc.) or else when someone’s following the “basically furry humans with speech impediments” Disney sidekick model.
But even though we’re physically far removed from horses, the same is true of many of our long-distance friends – and we can get to know them in much the same way. No, Mr. Ed’s not especially good with Twitter, but Wilbur’s more than happy to manage it for him. Here, for example, is video proof that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t prevent the massive splashing silliness that follows. And there’s a charming little blog post about a horse who was astonished – astonished! – to discover that yes, actually, you can pee under saddle. And here’s a whole thread of funny horse disasters, hosted by a 60,000-member forum that is my personal go-to research resource. All of that does wonders when you’re trying to bring a four-legged character to life:
“Hey Ax,” Elim said to the horse rolling in the packed reddish earth beyond the wagon. “Try and get some extra dirt in there for me, will you? Make sure you get yourself nice and crusty, now. If I don’t gotta spend at least half an hour brushing you out tomorrow, I’m gonna take it personal.”
But the thing is, these little details don’t just have to be fun and flavor. They can drive the plot in all kinds of interesting ways. No, the old stone-in-the-hoof trope doesn’t really hold water, but you can get a ton of mileage out of that “all for want of a horseshoe nail” business.
For example, let’s say your heroes are out on a quest, and get robbed in the middle of the night. Standard plot-starter, right? But it gets worse when their horse loses a shoe later – and since the spare shoes were stolen, there’s nothing they can do but pull the other shoe off and hope for the best. But since he’s not used to working barefoot on hard ground, he starts to go lame. Which means they can’t cover as much ground. Which means they run out of water long before they make it to the oasis. Which means the horse is thirsty, and – unbeknownst to his handlers – ends up drinking something he shouldn’t. Which (since this is a fantasy novel, after all!) has sinister supernatural implications, with consequences that wake you up in the middle of the night:
The horse had escaped again. And with the night-eyes of the a’Krah, Vuchak could see it clearly. It was wandering aimlessly, sweating, shaking, pausing every few seconds to stretch out its neck and vomit out another hideous, muscle-straining scream. Even as Vuchak watched, it turned again, revealing the blood running down its foreleg from the huge, bloody hole behind its shoulder – from the place where it had been eating itself.
“What is it?” Hakai’s voice was barely audible over the next terrible bray.
“The horse,” Vuchak answered, his words cold in his ears. “It’s infected.”
And of course, all that screaming is liable to attract the kind of things that are attracted by screams in the night, and things go downhill from there.
I think that’s what interests me most as both a reader and a writer of fantasy: I love it when an author blurs the distinction between the magical and the mundane elements of their world, letting the narrative weave back and forth between them like a plot-needle stitching together layers of story-cloth. After all, the only requirement of a fantasy story is that it takes place outside the world as we know it… and since most of us don’t have horses as part of our daily lives, they are both ordinary and strange – a perfect choice to take us from the world we know to one we don’t. Let’s start advertising that.
“Fantasy: come for the swords, stay for the horses.”
The border town called Sixes is quiet in the heat of the day. Still, Appaloosa Elim has heard the stories about what wakes at sunset: gunslingers and shapeshifters and ancient animal gods whose human faces never outlast the daylight.
And the daylight is running out. Elim’s so-called ‘partner’ — that lily-white lordling Sil Halfwick — has disappeared inside the old adobe walls, hell-bent on making a name for himself among Sixes’ notorious black-market traders. Elim, whose worldly station is written in the bastard browns and whites of his cow-spotted face, doesn’t dare show up home without him.
If he ever wants to go home again, he’d better find his missing partner fast. But if he’s caught out after dark, Elim risks succumbing to the old and sinister truth in his own flesh — and discovering just how far he’ll go to survive the night.