I was drawn to this submission by its lively energy and its carefully detailed Australian setting. Also, I like portal fantasies. There’s quite a bit of work to do with the prose, particularly the meanings and connotations of words and phrases, and readers of the ms. in its entirety will have specific and informed things to say about how this revision fits into the whole both structurally and thematically.
But that’s something other reviewers can do, and will do. I had thoughts in that direction myself—until I met Whitejay.
Disclosure: I write the twice-monthly SFF Equines column for Tor.com, and I’ve published an ebook from Book View Cafe, Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Also I have, at current count, seven horses on a farm in Arizona, and I’ve been a breeder and trainer for mumblemumble years.
So, when I meet a horse in a novel, I tend to fixate on it. I have expectations. Especially when the horse is given a name and the narrative implies that the characters (and by extension the author) care about it as an individual, I look for a more knowledgeable portrayal than if it’s just nameless transportation (though even there I have Thoughts).
My first thought here was, “A horse is not a motorcycle.” I had this thought even before we met Angus on his motorcycle and we learned that Ethan has deliberately chosen to ride a horse. Because Whitejay is treated exactly like a motorcycle or a bicycle. When Ethan is busy with plot-stuff, she’s stowed without moving, fidgeting, or interacting with her environment, and she shows no signs of needing to eat or drink.
It’s good that Ethan tells Elise to “keep an eye on the horses,” but she takes off, only pausing to tie Whitejay to a “small tree branch.” Ethan interacts with Whitejay, including a ferocious coughing fit, but Whitejay does not respond at all. Nor has she moved or shown signs of life.
What she would actually do is move around, especially if she can hear the booming voice, which might spook her or at the very least cause her to stand rigid, with ears pricked toward the sound—and here’s some proof for Ethan that there’s something there. Or if she doesn’t react, that’s a kind of proof, too.
In any case, whatever she does about the voice, while she’s tied she’ll try to graze or browse, maybe try to pull away when the other horse leaves (because herd animal sees herd member abandoning her), maybe paw impatiently if she can’t reach anything to eat. When Ethan pets her, she may push her nose into his hand, or she may nose his pockets for treats. She might stamp and switch her tail at flies. She’s a live animal with a mind of her own, and she will have her own ideas as to what should be happening.
Ethan’s fit of grief may get a reaction, too. She might move a little closer to him, and stand steady while he leans on her, supporting him with her greater weight and mass. She might curve her neck around him if she really relates to him, or she might shy away if she’s not into howling humans (though the relationship they have seems to be more or less reciprocal). His tears will wet her neck, and her smell will be sharper, in a way that’s pleasant to horse people though it may seem pungent to the rest of the world.
When the voice booms again, does Whitejay hear it? Or is she perfectly still? How does she participate in what’s happening to Ethan?
Hours later, when Ethan wakes up, Whitejay has been being a motorcycle all night. That means she hasn’t moved or reacted or been a living thing for all those hours.
If this is the actual case, then she’s been under a spell. Frozen, in stasis. Otherwise, once he falls off, she’s most probably run back home. The people there have seen her coming, realized she’s riderless, and gone to find Ethan.
If she has stayed with him (and horses who are bonded to their humans will do so), then she’s wandered at least somewhat in search of food and water. If she can’t find either, see above re. heading back home. Because horses need to eat pretty constantly, and they need water particularly in hot, dry conditions. Fifteen to twenty pounds of forage per day to maintain basic condition, and up to fifty gallons of water daily, though if it’s not too hot or dry, that amount goes down to five or ten gallons. Right now, with temperatures here running in the low 100s F during the day, my six who are turned out together are drinking down half of a 100-gallon tank and all of a 30-gallon barrel between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. That’s standing around, doing their thing.
Even without the mathematics of equine metabolism, when a human falls off a horse, the horse is likely to have a dangling rein, which she will probably step on and break. She may break the whole bridle, and it will either be on the ground or hanging from her in pieces. And if she’s been sweating, her saddle will itch, which means she may have rolled and tried to get it off—it will be dusty, dirty, and may be damaged when Ethan wakes up, and if he’s unlucky, she’s managed to break the girth and get rid of the whole rig. Probably not if she’s well trained and the saddle is well fitted and the girth is tight, but it is a possibility. Horses are geniuses at getting themselves into trouble. If they can, they will.
And then there’s what happens when Ethan gets on.
Horses do not talk like dogs. A whinny is a distress call. It’s ear-splittingly loud and it acts like a klaxon. ALERT ALERT HORSE ABANDONED WHERE IS HERD WHY AM I ALOOOOOONE! Also with stallions it can be the aria with which he greets his mares and challenges his rivals, and with mares it may be a call to the foal who has gone too far from her side. None of which applies to Whitejay.
When a horse greets a friend, she flutters her nostrils, a soft sound called a whicker or nicker. It’s the sound a mare makes to her newborn foal. It’s soft and gentle.
Or she won’t make a sound at all. She’ll turn her head to touch his knee, and that’s when he can tickle her whiskers. Though I don’t know why he would want to, because horse whiskers are sensory organs like those of a cat, and horses don’t generally respond well to having them messed with. He might more likely rub her neck or smooth her mane or, if she’s incredibly tolerant, tug oh so lightly on one of her ears. (Incredibly tolerant, be it noted. Horses can be tender about their ears.)
Once Ethan gets going, he would be really concerned to find water for the horse first of all, and feed soon after—supposing she hasn’t spent the night grazing. Dehydration in horses can be fatal, not just because of the usual effects in any animal, but because the equine digestive system is horribly easy to mess up. Everything goes only one way, there is no backup mechanism, and if there’s a blockage in the miles of intestine, that part can die and so can the horse. Colic is the number one killer of horses, and impaction colic is a frequent cause.
The motorcycle encounter shows Whitejay actually reacting, but if she’s that gentle and that well trained, I would propose that she doesn’t prance. All she does is stop, throw up her head, and look hard at the noisy thing. This I can tell you from experience is maddening to the asshole trying to make her blow up and ditch you.
After this episode, we discover that Ethan has a canteen of water. Which he has completely failed to share with the horse. Or even think of doing so. Bad Ethan. Bad horse person. Bad.
In reality, the canteen by now is empty, because he gave most of it to Whitejay, and he’s been taking tiny sips himself. As to how he gave it to her, most likely he used his hat as a bucket. Doesn’t have a hat? Give him one.
I am glad he reaches the trough right after this, but there are still many waterless hours. I also notice that she can hear the horn, and “prancing in place” seems to be her standard reaction to odd noises. Again, more likely she stops and focuses hard on it. Or she might shy away from it, and refuse to go forward when he tries to make her do so.
He won’t stroke her chest from the saddle to calm her. That involves leaning precariously out of the saddle and reaching down and around. Stroking neck possibly, speaking softly, relaxing his body and sitting as deep in the saddle as he can, doing his best to stay in the middle when she erupts.
Nor will her coat do what it does here. Horses unlike dogs or cats do not bristle when they’re alarmed. Their coats do fluff up when they’re cold, but their response to scary things is to prick their ears, tense their muscles, snort explosively (which is another form of alarm call) and, as you show here, to leap or bolt out of there. Then indeed he would go flying off, and Whitejay would head for home.
I appreciate the effort here to make the horse a character in the story, and to show Ethan’s relationship with her. With more knowledge and a better sense of how horses act and react, Whitejay will play much more believably, and may even offer some additional plot-stuff both in this chapter and in the rest of the story. She’s a very cool character, and Ethan’s connection with her has a lot of plot-potential.