Elegant But Dry: All the Horses of Iceland by Sarah Tolmie

Posted 21st December 2021 by Siavahda in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 0 Comments

All the Horses of Iceland by Sarah Tolmie
Genres: Historical Fantasy
Representation: Major secondary Jewish character, Central Asian secondary cast
Published on: 1st March 2022
ISBN: 125080793X

A hypnotic historical fantasy with gorgeous and unusual literary prose, from the captivating author of The Fourth Island.

Everyone knows of the horses of Iceland, wild, and small, and free, but few have heard their story. Sarah Tolmie’s All the Horses of Iceland weaves their mystical origin into a saga for the modern age. Filled with the magic and darkened whispers of a people on the cusp of major cultural change, All the Horses of Iceland tells the tale of a Norse trader, his travels through Central Asia, and the ghostly magic that followed him home to the land of fire, stone, and ice. His search for riches will take him from Helmgard, through Khazaria, to the steppes of Mongolia, where he will barter for horses and return with much, much more.

All the Horses of Iceland is a delve into the secret, imagined history of Iceland's unusual horses, brought to life by an expert storyteller.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I didn’t hate this book, but I didn’t love it either. Although there were some lovely turns of phrase, the style was mostly quite dry; the conceit is that this story is being set down in writing by a Christian monk or priest, and in fairness it very much nails that vibe, the style of a historical chronicle. The problem is that it’s not a style I enjoy; it felt impersonal and distant, and was very… It’s like a bare but elegant wooden carving; I can understand why others like the aesthetic, I can tell that a great deal of thought and skill went into its crafting – but it’s not for me.

It didn’t help that I didn’t especially like or admire or enjoy the main character, and the characters I found most interesting we barely saw at all.

To deal with ghosts you must be a magician or a lawyer and he was neither.

This same story would have been one I deeply enjoyed if it had been written in a more descriptive style. I’ve seen this book described as dreamlike, poetic, folkloric – I disagree. The fantasy elements are treated in a very no-nonsense, practical manner, very matter-of-fact, and I appreciated it – it did a lot to underscore how the various peoples saw magic, that it was a known and accepted part of life, only strange in the way that any specialised craft is strange to those who are not trained in it. But the trade-off of that approach is that there was never any sense of wonder or beauty attached to the magical aspects of the story – really, there wasn’t much expression of wonder anywhere. Setting up the story as a historical chronicle is very different from framing it as a fairytale or myth, and while I’m sure there are going to be people who majorly enjoy this framework, I’m not one of them.

That said, Horses does have its own quiet grace. It flows like a cool mountain stream – sharp and bright and crystal clear, and if it’s bare and lacking in the flourishes and curlicues I was hoping for, well – it doesn’t need them, any more than a mountain stream requires decoration. There is no question that it is exactly what Tolmie intended for it to be, or that it does what she wanted it to do very well.

Eyvind was pleased at this offer but declined, thinking that the bread of the dead was unlikely to be wholesome.

This one is more an issue of me being the wrong reader for this book, rather than the book itself being flawed.


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