Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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How to write horses in fantasy

At tor.com, Judith Tarr writes: This is how you write a horse: Dun Lady’s Jess.

There’s plenty of nice chewy genre stuff going on in the book. It’s a portal fantasy with parallel worlds. There are wizard wars and breakneck chases and nasty politics. There’s interesting worldbuilding: a world in which magic takes the place of technology, with spells for everything from cooking food to healing broken bones to waging war. The good guys have complex lives and motivations, and the bad guys are not evil Just Because. They have reasons, mostly having to do with money and power.

But when it all comes down to it, I’m there for the horses. One horse in particular, the dun mare of the title. … In Dun Lady’s Jess, Durgin gives us a real horse, as real as human observation can make her—and then, through the side effect of an untested magical spell, transforms her into a human woman.

Yep. As it happens, this is one of my favorite fantasy horses as well. Jess (the woman) and Lady (the horse) switch back and forth, and the heart of the story is about Jess/Lady dealing with this.

Jess has a lot to process. She doesn’t think like a human, but the longer she lives as one, the less like a horse she becomes. When she’s forced back into her equine body and brain, she’s thrown into shock. The greater strength and stamina, the keener senses, are more than welcome, but the reduced mental processing power frustrates her to the point of breaking. Horses have extremely good memories, which means she can remember everything about her life as Jess, but much of it escapes her understanding.

Tarr’s horse-centric review is good, and Durgin’s trilogy about Jess is a lot of fun. Quite a few viewpoint characters, more than I might like, but most of the viewpoint characters work well for me and throughout, the focus is mainly on Jess. Plus who doesn’t like a good portal fantasy? And this is a good one. Have any of you read that too?

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