Friday, 29 January 1999

Anne McCaffrey: Black Horses for the King (1996)

Black Horses for the King coverEdition: Corgi, 1997
Review number: 198

Anne McCaffrey was never going to write an Arthurian story, because she felt put off by the Hollywood-style image she had of the legends, presumably that put about by films like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In this novel, written for the 'young adult' market, she has changed her mind. But she has not really written an Arthurian novel; the setting (other the fact that it is early medieval Britain, with the presence of a charismatic leader) is pretty irrelevant.

The idea behind the book is that the only thing that would produce a string of Saxon defeats like those attributed to Arthur would have been British use of heavy cavalry; and that would have meant large horses. In the sixth century, the average horse was the size of a small pony today, not enough to carry a large man and not a platform to take advantage of the major weapon made possible heavy cavalry - the charge. They would be fine for skirmishing from a distance with light bows (tactics used by Saracen light cavalry against Crusaders), but would not give an advantage in close combat.

So, at the beginning of his rule, Arthur (or rather, in this book, Artos) sets off to southern France where he will be able to buy a herd of Libyan horses, large and black. The book is told from the point of view of one of his companions, the boy Galwyn, who then becomes one of Artos' trusted grooms.

As a book aimed at teenagers, Black Horses for the King is well done; McCaffrey generally writes excellently for this age group. To someone with a bit more experience, it is perhaps rather predictable and certainly fits very snugly within the bounds of the standard plot type of a young boy growing up and discovering his destiny. It would be especially interesting to anyone who likes horses, though no specialist knowledge is needed to enjoy it.

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