Steve visits his childhood friend Pitch on the Caribbean island of Antago after Pitch sends him a newspaper clipping of wild horses on nearby Azul Island. They discover a hidden herd of wild horses, loads of Conquistador artifacts, and one magnificent chestnut stallion that Steve names Flame. Steve tames Flame, and Pitch and Steve witness a duel between Flame and a piebald stallion who also seeks to lead the herd. They decide to keep the island their secret, and return there whenever they can.
The first thing I need to say about this book is that Steve and Pitch are both unutterably, insanely, disturbingly, weird. SO WEIRD. They have half-formed personalities that basically shift constantly and how on earth do they deal with basic social norms and other people? In short: they are both really badly written.
The book starts by placing Azul Island with precise latitude and longitude coordinates.
Can I admit that I was kind of hoping they would be in the middle of a landmass in, like, Asia?
Steve is arriving to spend a few weeks with his childhood friend and next door neighbor Pitch, who has moved to the island of Antago to live with his older stepbrother, Tom, who owns a sugar cane plantation. Before we even go on can I just say that at no point does anyone in this book grapple with or even mention the history of brutal conquest and slavery that was the Caribbean sugar industry? Yeah. Here, read about it if you want to get (even more) depressed.
Anyway, Tom is a dick, but he at least has a well-defined character and a narrative purpose in the arc, because he thinks Steve’s proposal to spend two weeks camping on Azul Island is dumb and he tells Steve that if he can hack it for two weeks he can have any horse he wants. It’s not clear why he thinks Steve can’t hack it, other than he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t think anyone is competent at anything. In fifty more years, Tom is going to be hanging around internet forums posting Pepe memes and calling people cucks.
Let me give you a taste of how weird Steve & Pitch’s interactions with. This is one of their very first interactions after being apart for several years.
Steve pointed to Pitch’s shorts and said, smiling, “And you couldn’t get by with an outfit like that at home.” “No,” Pitch returned very seriously, “no, you couldn’t at all. And it’s a shame, for they’re so comfortable.”
…shorts? You can’t wear shorts in America? I mean, I know that standards for men’s clothing have changed and Steve and Pitch are both at a precarious point when they’re not yet full adults and therefore are navigating the boundaries between acceptable young adult clothes and acceptable adult apparel but I somehow don’t think that’s what Walter Farley was trying to say here.
Pitch’s eyes were bright as he went on excitedly, “From here, Steve, those infamous Conquistadores, men like Cortés, Pizarro and Balboa, may have selected their armies, their horses, guns and provisions, and set forth to plunder the Incas and the Aztecs of their gold!”
WHY ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT THAT, PITCH?
The Conquistador fanboying also leads quite nicely into the other theme of the book: equine eugenics. And look: we select for traits when we breed, and as humans who control the breeding destinies of our animals, we are obviously creating what we want, and I know that the term eugenics doesn’t quite apply in the same way. But there is a difference between “selecting for desired traits within a breed standard that is part of a wide array of different breeds” and the over the top bizarreness that Steve and Pitch engage in here. I’ll provide examples as we go on, but here’s one of the first, when they arrive on the sandy beach that everyone thinks is the only accessible part of Azul Island.
It was obvious that Tom had left the worst of the horses upon Azul Island, Steve thought. Certainly the Conquistadores couldn’t have ridden puny animals like these in their long, arduous campaigns into the New World! He remembered the pictures of statues he had seen in his schoolbooks of men like Pizarro and Cortés sitting astride horses strong and powerful of limb, capable of standing the rigors of long marches through strange and hostile lands.
Pretty is as pretty does, Steve, and basing your conceptions of history off of pictures of statues from elementary school textbooks is…really dumb.
Speaking of the island, can we talk about its ecology for a second? Azul Island is about 95% steep canyon walls (how steep? steep enough to block the sun, but not so steep that Steve & Pitch can’t climb them by hand later) with a sandy beach a few hundred yards wide by a quarter mile long that is believed to be the only accessible part of the island. On this beach lives a herd of horses with such viability that Tom can round up 30 horses every few years from them. How do they not all starve to death? Great question! Never answered.
Then we get to the next part of the story, in which Steve finally confesses to Pitch why he came to visit him in Antago. Pitch had sent a newspaper clipping of the most recent roundup of Azul Island horses, and it reminded Steve of a literal fever dream he had as a small child.
It was the anaesthetic, but I didn’t know that. I breathed in the sweet, sickly odor, and I was still thinking of my pony when the fiery pinwheels started. I followed them round and round as they sped faster and faster. Soon they were going so fast that they no longer made a circle, but were one ball of fire. It came at me hard, bursting in my face. “It was then that I first saw Flame. I didn’t name him Flame. The name just came with this horse, for his body was the red of fire. He was standing on the cliff—” Steve stopped and glanced behind him. “That cliff,” he added huskily. “Below, too, was the canyon and the rolling land beyond. All this …” His hand pointed to the canyon and then fell to his side.
“I grew up,” Steve went on, “and put Flame aside along with my tricycle and scooter. But I never actually forgot him, Pitch,” he insisted. “I never forgot Flame, or the canyon and cliff. Then a few weeks ago your letter came—your letter with the picture of a place I’d thought an imaginary one for so many years!” Steve’s voice had risen and there was eagerness in it now as he turned toward Pitch. “How could I have seen this canyon ten years ago, Pitch? How could I, when I’d never heard of Azul Island until a few weeks ago when your letter came? That’s what brought me here, Pitch,” he confessed.
So of course that very night they wake up in the middle of the night and what do they see? A giant chestnut stallion standing on that very cliff! (Later in the book it will be pretty clear that there is no way to get to the top of the cliff from the inside of the island except by climbing up a rope. Pretty much everything to do with this island is a plot hole so large you could drive a dump truck through it.)
This sends Steve straight into a frenzy, and they pack up their campsite and circle the island in the hopes of finding where the horse came from. They find a rock that they tie up to, and then foot and handholds up a fissure in the rock that they climb up. At the top of the cliff is a man-made hole, and they rappel down it into some caverns. Then they wander through the caverns for hours and hours. At one point they stumble across a room entirely full of skeletons chained to the wall. The lose all their matches, and then their flashlight. Because there is no justice in the universe, they do not starve to death.
“This tunnel is partly natural in formation, Steve. It could have been cut as far back as the Ice Age, then pushed up by some giant upheaval.” Pitch paused, then added with great awe, “But a lot of it has been worked out by hand. Notice the perfect regularity of the cutting on each side and on the ceiling here.” Steve’s eyes were following the beam of light. “By whose hands?” he asked. “The Spaniards, Steve, the Spaniards,” Pitch returned quickly. “They probably started work on it early in the sixteenth century and continued for well over a hundred and fifty years—until shortly after 1669, I’d say.”
Can I just get this off my chest? All the online summaries you read about this book call Pitch an archaeologist. PITCH IS NOT A FUCKING ARCHAEOLOGIST. He is an overly enthusiastic amateur idiot. We have no idea what he does on Antago other than skulk around his stepbrother. He has a creepy hard-on for the Conquistadors and he digs shit up. That’s it. He’s an archaeologist in the same way my husband is an electrician which is to say my husband wanders through the house leaving lights on for hours at a time and unplugs my iPhone chargers at the worst possible moment. Pitch jumps to bizarre conclusions, has no sense of context, has no interest in interrogating or documenting the things he finds. He’s a worse archaeologist than Indiana Jones, who at least managed to get a doctorate and puts things in museum collections occasionally.
They emerge into a magical valley that comprises (most of) the interior of Azul Island, and there they see a band of horses! What kind of horses, you ask? Well, if you’ve read my other reviews you know that Walter Farley is obsessed with typing every possible kind of horse as an Arabian, no matter how unrealistic or unlikely it is that they would be.
Leaving the herd, moving from shadow to sun, stepped the giant stallion of the cliff! He walked toward the pool, his proud head raised high, his muscles moving easily beneath sleek skin. The sun’s rays turned his chestnut coat into the glowing red of fire. Under his breath, Steve murmured, “Flame!”
“They all have Arabian blood in them, Pitch. Notice their wedge-shaped heads.” And then Steve went on to point out every physical characteristic of the Arabian that he had observed in the horses. He concluded by saying, “They’re the same horses the Conquistadores rode centuries ago, Pitch.”
One of them does the math and realizes this single herd of horses has been here for ~300 years, which is…interesting. Steve’s fine with it.
But I’ve read,” he went on, “that inbreeding is perfectly all right if the horses are of the purest blood and don’t have any bad traits or weaknesses; because if they do, the bad traits in both sire and dam show up in the foal worse than ever.” Steve paused. “But that hasn’t happened here—at least, as far as we can tell.”
…that is not how genetics work, Steve.
They watched the horses for a few more minutes before Pitch said, “I was thinking of the Arabian blood in these horses, Steve. You know that seems logical to me too, now, because the Arabs invaded Spain in about 700 A.D. They remained in Spain for five hundred years before they were forced out, and I’m sure that by that time their horses had become native to Spain.” Pleased with his own reasoning, Pitch looked at the horses with renewed interest.
…that is not how history works, Pitch.
The next sequence of events is super weird and really kind of awful. (I feel like I’m overusing the word weird in this review, but at the same time I feel like my review is making this book feel more coherent than it actually is. Imagine me writing and erasing “weird” about twice as often as I actually ended up using it.)
First, a bay stallion comes out of nowhere (nowhere!!! there’s only one herd of horses!) to challenge Flame, because if there’s one thing this book series has established, it’s that stallions are crazed assholes who fight to the death at every opportunity. Probably 10% of this book is horse-on-horse MMA. Flame kills the bay stallion, and then another stallion emerges out of nowhere to challenge Flame.
Then he, too, saw the monstrosity of a horse that now stood a few hundred yards from the red stallion. He had come with the falling of the sun behind the walls of Azul Island. In the shadows, his massive body penetrated the darkness like a luminous thing. It was as though he belonged only to the night. He was as grotesquely ugly as the red stallion was beautiful. Thick-bodied, he stood still, waiting … waiting as he had done all through the fight of the other two stallions. Small, close-set eyes—one blue, the other a white wall-eye—gleamed from his large head, which was black except for the heavy blaze that descended over his wall-eye. His neck was thick and short, as was his body, and black too except for the ghostly streaks of white that ran through it. His mane and tail were white. Arrogant and ruthless, fearing nothing, he moved toward the red stallion at a walk, hate gleaming in his beady eyes. His heavy ears were pulled back flat against his head, his teeth bared. Suddenly he stopped, with ears pitched forward, and screamed his challenge again. He was the embodiment of ugliness, of viciousness. Only the high crest upon his neck and the high set of his tail gave evidence of the Arabian blood in him.
Read that description, and then read it again slowly. Yeah. It makes even less sense the second time, doesn’t it? You see what I mean about equine eugenics now? The Piebald actually sounds like a horse I’d rather ride than Flame, to be honest. Good bone, cool coloring, a bit sassy but way smarter than Flame. Sure, he’s supposed to be the embodiment of evil, but Flame doesn’t exactly have moral high ground to stand on either.
The Piebald kicks Flame’s ass, and Flame runs away and disappears at the far end of the interior canyon. Steve is apoplectic and convinced that the Piebald will ruin the herd of horses in the valley by spreading his inferior seed, and it will be the end of this majickal breed of horses because nothing like this has ever happened in the last weird incestuous 300 years of this herd being entirely alone. (With no natural predators, and a couple square miles of grazing space! How is this place not ten feet high in horse bones?)
Steve, of course, follows Flame, and as he does so somehow the geography of Azul Island gets even more confusing. He goes through a narrow passageway to find another small canyon, where Flame is hiding out. Then Flame runs away from him into another narrow passageway, and emerges into a huge natural sea cavern. There are all sorts of small caverns off the main one, and in one of those small caverns is a pit of quicksand. With a sort of…winch over it? Like the Conquistadors used to…lower things into it? Is it some kind of torture mechanism? Why quicksand? What the actual fuck?
Of course Flame falls into the quicksand, somehow. (I’m honestly not sure how. I think trying to escape Steve? Good job, jackass.) Steve gets a rope around him and stops him from sliding further in. The rope is hooked to the 300 year old winch mechanism, which works perfectly. Then Steve leaves to go get Pitch.
Pitch thinks the whole thing is weird, and could Steve just calm down for a bit and have some dinner before they go rescue Flame?
“I didn’t mean to be unkind,” Pitch said quickly. “I’m sorry, Steve. It’s just that I’m finding it difficult to keep pace with your reasoning. Why are you so certain that Flame won’t return to his band?
Pitch is all of us.
Then I’m pretty sure he roofies Steve because…Steve falls asleep. Just out cold. While Flame is dangling from a winch in a pit of quicksand on the other side of the island. Holy shit.
When he wakes up, he has to talk Pitch into going to help him, which Pitch eventually does, and on the way there they do a lot of little side trips to look at Conquistador stuff because Pitch’s hard-on continues unabated. In order to get Pitch’s help, Steve promises specifically that he won’t pursue Flame anymore, because Pitch is worried (not unreasonably!) that Flame is a wild animal who will kill Steve. Steve promises, and then spends pretty much the rest of the book whining about that promise.
They rescue Flame in a harrowing and highly improbable sequence of events, and then we get a whole long montage in which Steve makes heart-eyes at Flame from across fields while Pitch digs up extraordinary artifacts and just puts them in his pockets because they’re shiny. That’s maybe 10 days of their 14 day trip. (Everything else I have recounted was days 1-3, yes, seriously.) Eventually Flame approaches Steve and Steve says that he hasn’t violated his promise to Pitch because he didn’t pursue him, Flame came to him! That seems like really weaselly logic to me, but whatever. Steve then spends all day riding Flame and fixing up his cuts from his fight with the Piebald.
Steve is pretty determined to get Flame off the island, because he thinks Flame can be the horse that Tom promised him. He thinks that Flame is now ostracized from the herd and he doesn’t care about equine racial purity anymore, just about “his” horse. He’s convinced that Flame is to afraid of the Piebald to go back into the main valley.
Pitch and Steve get ready to leave on their last day, and the last 10% of the book is just them making up, and then changing, their minds about whether or not to tell people about the island. I wanted to knock their heads together really hard many times during this sequence. Make a plan and stick to it, fer fuck’s sake!
But no! Flame follows Steve out of the valley like a lovesick puppy, whistling/screaming/making impossible noises the whole time! And the Piebald sees him, and Steve and Pitch. He chases down the boys and breaks Steve’s arm somehow (maybe by knocking him over? it’s really not clear). We get another multiple-page long stallion fight after which Flame finally emerges victorious, shockingly enough, and that convinces Steve that Flame has to stay on his island.
They get back to Antago in the boat which has miraculously been tied up to a random rock on the side of an island in the middle of the Atlantic for two weeks without sustaining any damage or sinking, and Pitch changes his mind five more times on the way there about whether to tell people.
Steve finally makes a vanity appeal, saying to Pitch that he could be the only person to study the island and he could make genius archaeological discoveries and Steve will come help him whenever he can! On all his school vacations and summers! Pitch thinks that sounds just swell, and he’s going to excavate an important untouched archaeological site entirely by his untrained and uninformed self and everyone will be just thrilled!
Aaaaaand…end book. Seriously, that’s it. What a long, strange trip that was, from the fever dreams to the equine racial purity to the Conquistador wet dreams to the utterly unlikable personalities of…literally everyone. Do I even need to mention that there was not one single woman in the entire book? Not “no women who spoke” or “no women with names” but not a single solitary woman even in the background. Oy.
I feel like I should say a few good things here, and what I have to say is that the most appealing parts of this book are pure wish-fulfillment. A secret tropical island with a hidden valley and a herd of magical horses? Sign 12 year old me! (Hell, sign 34 year old me up.) Obsessing about the Conquistadors at least gives Pitch something to do with his sad, weird life. And of course, the boy-and-his-horse trope is still strong here. The wistful, “I have a secret place were I’m accepted and loved” vibe is strong here, and there are moments when it really works.
Next up, I will have to try and be snarky about The Black Stallion and Satan, my own personal childhood favorite.