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Friday, May 27, 2022

All the Horses of Iceland by Sarah Tolmie (Reviewed by Daniel P. Haeusser)

Official Author Website
Order All the Horses of Iceland
OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Sarah Tolmie is the author of the poetry collection The Art of Dying (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018), the 120-sonnet sequence Trio (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), and the chapbook Sonnet in a Blue Dress and Other Poems (Baseline Press, 2014). She has published two novels with Aqueduct Press, The Little Animals (2019) and The Stone Boatmen (2014), as well as three short fiction collections, Disease (2020), Two Travelers (2016) and NoFood (2014). She is a medievalist trained at the University of Toronto and Cambridge and is a Professor of English at the University of Waterloo. Read Sarah’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A hypnotic historical fantasy with gorgeous and unusual literary prose, from the captivating author of The Fourth Island.
Everyone knows of the horses of Iceland, wild, and small, and free, but few have heard their story. Sarah Tolmie’s All the Horses of Iceland weaves their mystical origin into a saga for the modern age. Filled with the magic and darkened whispers of a people on the cusp of major cultural change, All the Horses of Iceland tells the tale of a Norse trader, his travels through Central Asia, and the ghostly magic that followed him home to the land of fire, stone, and ice. His search for riches will take him from Helmgard, through Khazaria, to the steppes of Mongolia, where he will barter for horses and return with much, much more.
All the Horses of Iceland is a delve into the secret, imagined history of Iceland's unusual horses, brought to life by an expert storyteller.

FORMAT/INFO: All the Horses of Iceland is a novella of 104 pages, without chapter breaks. The story of Eyvind and the Horse with No Name is set in the 9th Century, and is told in the third-person by Jór, approximately three hundred years after its occurrence. Short first-person interjections by the narrator occur amid the main tale.
1st March 2022 marked the release of the novella by Tordotcom Publishers in paperback and eBook.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Magic cuts across all faiths.” This exquisite historical fantasy from the poetic Medievalist Sarah Tolmie uses a bit of magic, and a lot of research, to relate a legend for the origin of all the horses in Iceland.

Now, though I’ve actually been to Iceland as a child, I don’t really know much on the subject of horses. I had no idea that Icelandic horses were a unique breed with an expanded repertoire of gaits. All the Horses of Iceland educated me on this, along with forays into Wikipedia and YouTube, exploring the Tölt, the flying pace, and horse anatomy.

Starting this novella reminded me a lot of reading The Tower of Fools, the first book in Andrzej Sapkowski’s Hussite Trilogy. I’d read some of the book until coming to a reference I didn’t really know, and so would do a bit of research. I’d then reread the passage in the book and continue, step by step. Slowly, I was doing less research, and becoming immersed in the beauty of the book, and the rich historical period.

Now, it’s certainly not essential to do this in order to comprehend, or even enjoy All the Horses of Iceland (or Sapkowski’s historical fantasy for that matter.) But, it’s an exercise I absolutely adore doing. I learn some things, and begin some fluency in the setting of the fictional work.

Some of you may have had a similar experience if you’ve happened to see Robert Eggers’ epic The Northman in theaters, with Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy In fact, if you have seen this or it has been picked up on your radar, then All the Horses of Iceland will definitely interest you, overlapping the same approximate time period and locales.[During the screening of an earlier cut of the film, an audience member reportedly commented that one needed a PhD in Nordic history to understand that film. The re-cut by Eggers apparently sought to correct this. But still some things are left unexplained, such as when Skarsgård’s character beheads a ghost/undead warrior and plants the head by the buttocks. Interestingly, All the Horses in Iceland explains the import of this little detail.]

Born in Iceland, protagonist Eyvind departs his island home in his mid-twenties, but already feeling old: impotent and deaf in one ear. He departs in search of trade and profits through established Viking shipping routes, but becomes diverted by happenstance of his pagan culture and a ship captain who decides to convert his crew to Christianity. Ending up in the Rus Empire, Eyvind joins with a group of Khazar traders, led by Jewish David. By horse and by camel, the traders traverse Rus and Khazaria to the steppes of Mongolia and the camps of Sorqan Šira, one of the historical ministers of Genghis Khan.

There, David voices concern that the qan’s camp seems abnormally unnerved, people on edge, and horses acting crazed. The ghost of the qan’s dead wife Bortë has been following the camp with haunting misfortune. Though told to mind his own business and avoid offending their hosts, Eyvind takes it upon himself to offer advice to the qan. Working with Bortë’s magician mother Hoe’lün, Eyvind succeeds in calming Bortë’s spirit, which goes on to peacefully inhabit a mysterious white mare, a horse with influence and powers that connect with the bit of magic within Eyvind himself.

Though resistant to changing his core perception of himself, (his religion, his ordinariness) Eyvind lives with a cross cultural tolerance that looks to unite common ties of humanity between the diverse people he encounters on his journey. Even when magic takes him by surprise, he calmly rolls with it, and adapts, permitting his experiences to reveal potential fortunes rather than fighting against things.

You are an innovator,” said David, disapprovingly. “I suppose I am,” said Eyvind.Circumstances keep changing.”

All the Horses of Iceland is set during a time (and in lands) amid violent change and intersecting cultural or political forces. Eyvind’s good nature, and his acceptance of things, permit him to profit and bring the magical Horse with No Name back to the shores of his home, along with a former slave among the Mongols, thereby changing the course of Iceland’s future. As the novella often mentions, his name comes from the Scandinavian for the luck and happiness of the wind. He literally begins his journey by going where the wind blows, and rather than ever living in fear, he acts with curiosity and joy.

Tolmie seems to excel at unconventional structure in her prose. (A glance at my review for Strange Horizons of her collection Disease could also illustrate this.) In All the Horses of Iceland, Tolmie breaks the linear, historical narrative of Eyvind’s journey with asides from the narrator Jór, an Icelander priest living some three hundred years later, after the land has been Christianized. This adds further religious contrasts to the tale, while still highlighting the universality of the magic to anyone of any faith. Tolmie also first introduces the fantasy element of the novella, Bortë’s ghost and the Horse with No Name, in the form of translated text from a tablet that Eyvind brings back to Iceland along with the horses he receives from the qan. This adds an atmosphere of verisimilitude to Tolmie’s constructed legend, tying into the academic framework underlying this historical fantasy.

CONCLUSION: Fans of rich historical fiction, sumptuous prose, and the alluringly magical wonder of legend will eat up this short, transformative story. Tolmie takes the academic and renders a long-dead past into a timeless, vividly painted portrait of cultural exchanges, and the history-altering possibilities they can provide to the adaptable among us.


Anonymous said...

This hits a lot of sweet spots for me. Thanks for the review and heads up on it.

Kristin Gleeson said...

This ticks so many boxes for me.


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