Book Review: I Am the Great Horse, by Katherine Roberts

Katherine Roberts’ I AM THE GREAT HORSE was the very first book I reviewed on my Sword And Sandal Kids blog in 2009.  In fact it was the first book I ever reviewed, and it has remained one of my all time favourite novels.  I consider it a modern classic as great in stature as Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth.

I lost all the reviews I had on Sword And Sandal Kids last year but, luckily, I’d printed out this one and I came across it recently while looking for a misplaced notebook.  I’m reproducing it here in the hope that it will be read by a new batch of followers.

Katherine Roberts won the Branford Boase Award in 2000 for her debut children’s novel, Song Quest, the first title in a fantasy trilogy called The Echorium Sequence. In I AM THE GREAT HORSE, she successfully blends fantasy with historical fact to produce a real thoroughbred.

The Great Horse of the title is Bucephalas, the war-stallion that carried Alexander the Great through twenty years of war campaigns from his native Macedonia all the way to the Indus River.  But don’t expect any Animal Ark cuteness here.  Bucephalas is the equine equivalent of the alpha-male with an ego to match that of his king. He is forever chasing fillies, gets stuck into battles with gusto and likes to drop dung on other horses’ to prove he is da boss.

Despite a thread of light humour running through the book, Roberts pulls no punches in portraying Bucephalas’ ancient world.  The battles are described in vivid, graphic detail.  Men are hacked to bits. Elephants have their trunks chopped off. There is torture, wholesale massacre and mentions of rape.  The body count is higher than in any other book for young adults I have ever read.

Against this often gory panorama, emerges a story of surprising intimacy.  Alexander, his groom – a girl called Charmeia – and his horse form an emotional three-way bond that is hard to break.  Why does Alexander, an emperor, care so much about a common groom?  Why does Charmeia insist on staying close to a king who seems to care little about her?  What makes her so important to Bucephalas?   As the three journey further and further away from home and the threads of their lives start to unravel, their loyalties are put to the test and secrets are revealed.

This is mainly an adventure story but Roberts being a fantasy writer, there is magic too.  Amazonian she-warriors emerge from a hole in the world.  Charmiea has prophetic dreams and  – an absolute corker of an idea – Bucephalas can see ghosts.  His descriptions of startled souls having to suddenly evacuate the bodies they inhabit are spell-binding.

And the ending, at least for a battle-weary nag like me who perhaps is way past staying up late to finish YA novels, is one of the most moving you’ll ever read. Thelma and Louise you have been dominated. Ha!

Memorable quotes:

We must make our choices and feel the love and pain that arises from them. That is the joy and the curse of life. [p478]

If we’re not careful we make our dreams come true, the bad ones as well as the good. [p486]

I AM THE GREAT HORSE is published by Chicken House in the UK and US.

You might also be interested in the following review:

Titanic, Death on the Water – by Tom and Tony Bradman

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