The story of King of the Wind spans continents and centuries. Marguerite Henry opens with Man o' War's last race in 1920 against Canadian favorite Sir Barton, Man o' War's 21st race and 20th win. But Man o' War isn't the titular King of the Wind, and the real story begins in the 1720s in Morocco, with Man o' War's distant ancestor, the legendary Godolphin Arabian.
King of the Wind is a novel, but it's based on real events and actual people and horses. Henry made her mark as a writer of horse stories for children, and this book shows her in top form, weaving the hopes and dreams of human beings together with the majesty and glory of horses. Equally at home describing human and equine nature, Henry gives us a fascinating look at the bond that forms between animals and their masters, and how that bond can lead to great things.
Morocco in the 1720s was ruled by a bloodthirsty and fickle Sultan whose impressive stables boasted 12,000 of the best Arabian runners. Mute Agba is a stableboy slave with ten horses under his care, but his favorite is a lovely mare who can outrun gazelles. After she dies birthing a colt, his affection turns toward her offspring, whose markings denote both bad luck (a wheat shape on his chest) and speed (a white star on his back leg).
When the Sultan decides to send a gift of six horses to the king of France as a buy-off, Agba is overjoyed to be sent along with his young charge Sham, named after the sun. But things turn bad at once, and after a rough sea voyage with an evil ship captain the stableboys, their horses and the Sultan's groom Signor Achmet show up in France emaciated, dirty, and exhausted.
What follows is a series of adventures in which Agba cares for and is separated from Sham, ends up in jail, is taken in by a kindly Quaker, becomes the servant of a gracious nobleman in England, is banished to a swamp, and somewhere in the midst of it all manages to release Sham to mate with a brood mare of perfect proportions. By the end of the tale, Sham's sons have begun the remarkable race-winning career of his progeny, he's become the famed Godolphin Arabian, and pedigreed horses have a new standard for greatness.
Even without the acknowledgements and list of books consulted in the back of the volume, it's easy to see that Henry did her research. Descriptions of old Morocco, 18th century France and England, and horses across the centuries, are all vivid and realistic. Whether you're into horses or not, you'll be drawn in by the fine writing and the evocation of historic places and figures. There's not a lot of humor, but there are plenty of tenderhearted moments, lots of suspense, and excellent pacing.
Many books set in the past fall flat because there's no real link by which to relate to the story—it's simply a story that could happen anywhere, anyhow which happens to take place a long time ago. Not so King of the Wind. This is definitely a novel, but it's a novel bound inextricably to historical fact, and this makes both the historical and fictional aspects that much more fascinating. That it's a horse story lends yet another layer of interest for many readers, and even if you care nothing about horses going in, you'll likely find yourself humming a different tune once you finish.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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