Review: Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic – AFTER THE LAST PAGE
- Coming of Age
- Debut Novel
- 342 pages
- Professional athlete
- Quick Read
Roan Montgomery has spent her entire life surrounded by horses. A 15-year old equestrian prodigy from a long line of Olympic equestrians, Roan has to live up to a certain level of expectation. After all, it’s her job to carry on the family legacy and the future of Rosemont Farms. Coached by her father, Olympic champion Monty Montgomery, Roan has the ability to make her mark—should she follow his rules. Governed by strict obedience, Roan has no choice but to see the multiple sides of her father she will never escape. Though her relationship with her father is strained, and inappropriate, she has no choice but to follow his rules or she risks losing the legacy and her beloved animals.
Compartmentalizing the difficult aspects of her life and her father-daughter relationship, Roan takes on the path to Olympic Gold. Roan is forced to separate her school life, her childhood, and her sport in order to succeed. Ruthlessly focusing on her ambitions as a rider, Roan is certain that she can keep going if she just holds on a little longer—until she meets Will Howard, a boy from school who teaches her to question just how much of her childhood is truly normal.
- 4.5/5 stars
TW: Talk of Sexual Abuse and Violence
This book was a tough one for me. Honestly, it would be a tough one for anyone—there are some very difficult and controversial things that happen in this novel. Recommended by a fellow reviewer in a Facebook group, I was excited to get into a novel about equestrians. As a long time rider and a horse-owner, I love seeing novels that highlight the sport, as there aren’t near as many equestrian-novels as there are for other sports. While horses are a big theme of this book, they aren’t the central one. This book is a story of a young girl gaining independence from a father that is all too consuming.
One thing I truly appreciated about Roan’s character was her inability to separate adulthood from childhood. As a 15-year-old, she calls her father, “Daddy,” though he acts completely inappropriately with her. Roan goes to school, but she doesn’t have many friends. Her childhood aspect is defined by the strained relationship with both her parents, where she is expected to act like a little girl. Yet, Roan is anything but—she is drinking bourbon in her closet, compartmentalizing the sexual abuse coming from her father, and focusing on very difficult and in-depth routines for competitions. As a reader, I see this device as a way for Roan to fain innocence with her father and hope that he will stop his behavior. Though I’m not an expert in children and abusive relationships, I have found through my research, that children will act younger than they are, or older than they are, given different situations. This book encapsulates that theory.
Another interesting aspect of this book is Roan’s relationship with her mother. Her mother isn’t necessarily an enabler, but she doesn’t do anything for Roan either. Since Roan was young, she knew about what was happening in the dark, and she chooses not to say anything. The mother clearly has some abuse issues of her own, mostly with substances, but that doesn’t excuse her ludicrous behavior and her inability to attach herself to Roan.
I think the most cherished character in this novel has to be Will Howard. Roan’s teachers, fellow competitors, classmates, and even her household staff never say anything. With how delicate the relationship is with Roan’s father, it would be impossible to spend time in the house (or with Roan) and not see what she is going through. Yet, the only one who actually seems to catch on is Will. Drawn in by Roan’s bravery, he becomes her friend, and then more. It’s obvious that he tests the boundaries with Roan’s father, maybe to get a better idea of what is happening in her life. Throughout the entire novel, he supports her, regardless of how she treats him as she tries to hide a situation she feels is her fault. I truly admire the strength of his character and his ability to find the balance between being available and respecting Roan’s boundaries.
I think there’s a lot to be said about Dark Horses. As a debut novel, this is one of the stronger ones I’ve read. Mihalic does a great job with character development and literary devices, sculpting a story that’s difficult to read through, but even more difficult to put down.
While I’d like to give this book 5 stars, I’m taking off a few points for the un-realistic ending. While I thought this story was very real and could and has happened with many pro-athletes (and other celebrities), the ending was just tied up too neatly. I think Roan’s courage is something that many real-life victims never get to experience—for them, just living through the day-to-day aspects of victimization is brave. While I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who want to read this one, I do think that it came together a little too perfectly.
With that being said, I also think that Will’s character is a little impractical as well. Though he plays a crucial role in Roan’s storyline, so many real-life situations don’t have a Will Howard. Victims of abuse are often so secluded, they don’t even have access to someone like Will, let alone the bravery to allow him into their lives.
Overall, there’s so many things that this book does well. For someone not familiar with the topics this novel approaches, this is a good read that will help bring awareness to something that has been happening under our noses for a very long time.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Mihalic’s knowledge of equestrian sports and horses. She portrayed the horse world very well in this novel—it is truly every bit as competitive as Roan describes. Though, there are definitely things that make the sport worth it, like Roan’s horse, Jasper.
There’s truly not much I would change about this book. I think it is a great story and Roan’s bravery is something to be revered, whether the reader finds it realistic or not. I also think that this novel is a great representation of how difficult the equestrian community can be, as well. Susan Mihalic is a fantastic writer and she is definitely one to watch out for. I will certainly be keeping my eye out to see when her next book releases.
If you’d like to order Dark Horses, you can check it out here. If you’ve read this book, let us know in the comments how you felt. Did you think Will was a realistic character? What did you think about how this book ended?
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