Two aliens from another world enter the secret valley of Azul Island and offer Steve an opportunity for Flame to compete against the world’s fastest race horses.
Okay. Here we go, people. This is what we’ve been training for. *cracks knuckles*
This is the third Island Stallion book, and the third summer that Steve Duncan is spending on Azul Island. This year, Pitch is off in New York working on his endless hero-worship Conquistador research, so Steve is alone on the island, which as far as he’s concerned is the way life should be: just him, Flame, and the weird Blue Valley herd of horses.
Speaking of the horses, the colt that we agonized over so much in the last book never did end up going home with Steve or more accurately his parents gave his dumb plan a giant thumbs down and said they were either paying for a horse or for him to jaunt off to the Caribbean every summer and Steve chose the latter. Honestly that is the best parenting so far in the entire series. Bravo, Mr. and Mrs. Duncan!
Speaking of the magical Flame:
As always, Flame marveled when after a few swallows, Flame left the pool to rejoin his band. Hot as he was, thirsty as he was, this wild stallion would drink very little when overheated. Steve wondered how many domestic horses would have left the cool water as Flame had done.
Remember in the last book when the Black drank cold water and colicked so hard he caused a plane crash? I can’t tell if Walter Farley is trying to tell us Flame is smarter than the Black or if he even thinks his plots/story arcs through that much?
On the other hand, Azul Island sounds PRETTY GREAT.
It was a world free of every care except the care of horses.
So, Steve swans around the island getting settled into his campsite, thinking a lot about what he’s going to eat and when, and riding Flame around very fast and thinking about how very fast Flame is. Late in the day, a weird golden light appears and Steve jumps to the most obvious conclusion.
A sun where there had been no sun. The end of the world had come!
The world, unfortunately for the readers, does not end but there’s a weird sequence where Steve sort of…blacks out while seeing his life flash before his eyes. When he wakes up, he convinces himself the light was a meteor and runs to the top of the cliffs to see if the ocean is boiling. Which it is not. Because that’s not really a thing that happens after a meteor strike.
What he see is a complicated and poorly described thing that is either a flat metal disc on the surface of the ocean, or a glowing light, or a needle-shaped floating object, or maybe a combination of two or three of those things depending on the moment in the narrative.
Clearly it’s not that exciting, though, because he goes to bed and then wakes up the next morning thinking again about Flame and how very fast he is and how there was a poster he saw advertising a race in Havana that was “OPEN TO THE WORLD” and how that really should mean Azul Island, too! Steve has little to no concept of hyperbole.
All this playing around isn’t enough to entirely distract him, though, and he returns to the cliffs to stare at the thing in the distance a bit more, but gets scared and returns through the caves and has a weird…sort of…hallucinatory experience. He hears voices. He follows the voices and in the Conquistador dining room he finds two men in business suits.
“Come in, Steve,” one voice said suddenly. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
And this is when the book goes completely off the rails.
The two men are named Jay and Flick and they are both kind of insane. They’re pretty clearly aliens, to the reader anyway, but Steve is either too stupid or too traumatized to realize this and we have to read an awful lot of weird banter between the two men that is frankly somewhat confusing and annoying to follow, like, Walter Farley, if you’re going to have two aliens randomly show up on Azul Island GO BIG OR GO HOME.
Anyway, they’re not just aliens, they’re creepy telepathic aliens who kind of spend the rest of the book mind-raping Steve. I’m not really kidding.
How long it was before he could see their faces again, he could not have told. But suddenly he was asking himself how anyone could look at these two men and think anything but good of them. Flick was smiling, pleased and happy that Steve trusted them completely, that he now felt confident no one, no country, had anything to fear from them.
Steve goes from so scared he’s catatonic to happy-go-lucky about aliens in the space of that one paragraph and I think it bears saying that THIS IS NOT OKAY.
I also feel like I need to say that: I am not opposed to science fiction. The vast majority of what I read for pleasure falls into the science fiction/fantasy category. I am totally down with aliens. I am totally down with moral gray areas, clashes of interstellar ideology, and general weirdness.
This is not really that; we never get a sense of a truly alien presence in either Jay or Flick. They’re just annoying creepos who descend on Steve and all of a sudden he is doing things that are TOTALLY INSANE. Honestly, given the way Jay and Flick mentally manipulate him from their first meeting I think there’s a good argument that nothing that follows is really consensual.
But I digress. Back to Azul Island, where Jay natters on about anything and everything and how he’s such a big horse racing fan except he’s also kind of an idiot? He lacks any kind of powers of observation and yet thinks he’s an expert and keeps showing up and saying things like
“But let’s talk about horses, Steve. Flame is a very beautiful animal and you sit him well.”
It’s kind of hard to explain in a recap like this how supremely weird everything Jay says about horses is. It’s all just off in a skin-crawling kind of way. Like he has this whole rant about the way jockeys ride their horses, standing up in their stirrups, that is supposed to be the narrative’s clue that he’s accidentally been away from Earth for 50 years, but it’s just so weird and oddly delivered.
Jay is constantly proposing things that make Steve really uncomfortable.
Still eager and with overwhelming curiosity Jay asked, “Would you like to fly, Steve? It’s the easiest thing and the most fun of all. Listen to what I have to say now. You must relax a bit more and help me. Make your mind a blank. Forget everything you’ve ever known in this world you call Earth. Forget all you’ve ever seen and been told. Now, Steve…”
Steve felt a heavy blackness come swiftly to his mind, claiming it for its very own. He fought it as he had never fought anything before. There was no pain but he writhed in agony and his arms flayed the air fighting nothing. He opened his mouth to yell, but no sound emerged.
You may ask yourself, why is Steve still hanging out with these creepos? GOOD QUESTION. NO ANSWER. The whole next chunk of the book is Steve trying to return to a semblance of normal life for an hour or two, and then one of the aliens – mostly Jay – popping up to do skeevy things. He even blackmails poor Flick into letting him do all sorts of things that keep escalating. (Apparently Flick went to some other planet he wasn’t allowed.)
Escalation reaches fever pitch when Jay decides he’s going to the international race in Havana that Steve was thinking about earlier, and then he comes up with his most batshit insane idea yet.
“Why don’t you and Flame come too, Steve? You can race him! That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? We’d have plenty of room in the ship.”
Jay’s words couldn’t be shrugged off as sheer folly! For how often had he dreamed of racing Flame?
NO, STEVE. WAVE OFF. BAD IDEA.
“I accept Jay and Flick from [Alula], not as deadly, threatening enemies to our very existence, but as good and kind friends touring other worlds in much the same manner as we visit other states and countries. I accept all this, and having accepted it I have nothing to fear except what I’ve learned to fear in my own world.”
That last sentence is like the perfect example of something someone writes to sound smart but on the tiniest examination is just DUMB.
Steve writes down everything he’s seen and done with Jay and Flick and Jay gaslights the everloving fuck out of him. Steve asks him if he minds writing and Jay says no! it’s adorable that you write things! you know no one will ever believe you, right? tee-hee!
In case you hadn’t noticed yet JAY IS A FUCKING SOCIOPATH.
Steve announces that he doesn’t want to race Flame after all, because he’s worried about taking the stallion out of his natural environment, which is the kind of intelligent, sensitive, and mature decision that has NO place in these books, so of course within a page or two Jay has talked him into it after all.
Well, first he makes sure that Steve has seen a few races (he has) and that Steve knows Flame is faster.
“After all, we wouldn’t want to go to the work of getting him there and then have him lose the race. It would be a terrible disappointment for both of us.”
Yes, Jay, the worst thing that could happen when two aliens take a wild stallion from his isolated island and drop him into the middle of a race is for him to lose and embarrass you.
Of course they decide to bring Flame to the race, but it turns out that Flame has “closed his mind” to Jay and Flick, and they can’t mentally manipulate him, so they enlist Steve’s help to make them seem like best buds and…I don’t even know, you guys, this whole thing makes zero sense. I guess it works, though, because then the aliens give Steve a magic bridle.
Yup. You read that right.
Only it wasn’t a rope at all. It was as soft as flesh and just as pliant. It had no weight and yet there was a great deal of it, fashioned in the shape of a hackamore, complete with reins. It had no color at all, and yet contained the most brilliant of all colors. The fibers pulsated beneath his fingers, seemingly alive and warm.
Anyone else feel nauseated at the idea of reins that are a) warm, b) pulsating, and c) “soft as flesh and just as pliant”?
Steve keeps trying to bring up logic and Jay keeps gaslighting and/or manipulating him.
“If it’s an open race, it’s open to any horse in the world which may want to race in it. You have every legal right to race Flame. You can demand it!”
“But I still have to answer their questions. And they’ll ask where we’re from.”
“You and Flame are from this world, aren’t you?” Jay demanded. “That’s all that is necessary to tell them.”
…yes, that’s all it takes to enter a horse in a race HOW DOES THIS KEEP GETTING CRAZIER.
Off they go to Cuba, which requires the following steps:
- get Flame into the launch, the small boat that Steve used to get to the island
- get Flame into the larger ship
- get Flame into a smaller cruiser that then flies to Cuba
- settle Flame into a stall for the first time
Yeah it’s just as bizarre as it seems. Flame refuses to eat hay, for example, which – I honestly can’t figure out if that’s just dumb or not? I feel like it is, but maybe a horse that’s never ever seen hay really wouldn’t get it at first?! Please help me figure out where to land on this one!
Jay heads off to Havana to enter Flame in the race and…I can only guess continues to use his telepathy to manipulate people because he has a whole series of conversations like this but gets into the race anyway:
“If you won’t tell me what time they go to the post, I’ll get the information from your secretary,” he said curtly.
“But this race is by invitation only,” the man said.
“Your posters made no mention of that condition,” he said sternly. “No mention that you’d only the horses you wanted to race in the International. You advised the public that the International Race was Open to the World.”
That is a loophole you could drive a Mack truck through. “Oh, it didn’t say I couldn’t do this on the poster, so therefore I can do it!”
Go ahead, try it! Show up at Kentucky and say “Well there was nothing on the poster that said I couldn’t come so LET ME AT THAT HEAD OF THE LAKE!”
Somehow, though, the race organizers think this will be a great publicity idea. Just splendid! Think of all the attention it will get them to have a rando horse that they’ve never laid eyes on show up at absolutely the last second and race! Jesus. At least the Black ‘s match race had months of build-up and hype!
Meanwhile, Steve is pondering things like “how am I going to control Flame in this race?” and “what if people recognize me?” and “how do I even ride a horse in a race?”
Wasn’t it the most natural thing in the world to wonder if every move he made in the race would come instinctively, without thought or plan?
WHAT THE FUCK, STEVE, NO. “Gee, I wonder if this insanely dangerous and stupid thing I’m about to do will just come instinctively to me? Or should I put some thing into what I’m doing? Nah. Let’s just let nature do its thing.”
They get to the track at the absolute last second, sort of after the post parade, at which point Jay announces that the alien ship has to leave very soon so unless Steve hurries it up Jay is going to abandon him and Flame in Havana. Like this race needed any more tension.
The starter gets so close to being the first sane character in the book but then veers off.
[Flame] wore nothing but a rope hackamore with two long golden tassels hanging from it. His rider was sitting bareback and wore no silks, just T-shirt and jeans. Strange, very strange indeed.
“Strange.” Yes. You could say that.
Somehow Flame gets into the gate and they are off and holy mackerel, people, this race is an absolute shitstorm of insanity.
First things first, Flame isn’t interested in running fast so much as he is in killing all the other horses in the race. Pretty explicitly.
[Flame] hesitated a second, wondering why the other stallion did not turn upon him so they could rise together in deadly combat.
Steve then realizes the only way to make Flame run is to keep redirecting his attention on the next horse ahead of him in hopes that his horse will want to run them down and murder them.
“Go, Flame!” he screamed, kindling the fire of Flame’s natural hatred for his own kind, encouraging him to run the others down! Only by taking advantage of the generations of breeding behind Flame could he hope to make a race of it.
…He was encouraging Flame to attack and attack again while they went ever closer to the front.
In.fucking.sane. Somehow, Steve keeps Flame focused on the next horse, and the next horse, until suddenly they’re in front and uh-oh, no more potential murder targets! Whatever will they do? Luckily, there’s an outrider ahead!
If the spectators had not known previously that they were witnessing the furious charges of an unbroken stallion, they were aware of it immediately following the end of the race. For the great red horse who had won surged past the finish line like a raging demon. They saw the object of his attack, for the outrider’s pinto horse was rearing high in the air while his rider sought to take him off the track.
All the other owners have to be furious, right? They all shipped their horses to Cuba and entered this race in good faith and at the last second the organizers sprung an unbroken murder machine on them that won the race and then tried to kill an outrider’s horse and WHAT THE HELL.
They won, so I guess Steve should be happy, except he’s really not because the race was a total nightmare. It’s not fun to revel in how fast your horse is going when you’re mostly thinking about whether or not it will slaughter the other horses.
Somehow, he directs Flame off the track, and they basically sprint to the horse van and drive back to the farm they leased. They lead all the reporters who were at the race on a merry chase through the woods and all the reporters watch as they all go into an invisible something and then vanish themselves. Yeah.
Well, they get back to Azul Island without further incident, and just before he heads off into the sunset Jay tells Steve that part of the reason he likes visiting Earth is that the aliens have somehow gotten rid of all animals on their planet which…like…are they all vegetarians now? do they even have an ecosystem? how do you get rid of ALL animals? all of them? what.the.fuck?
Ugh. Anyway. Jay and the spaceship vanish and…the next morning Steve wakes up and decides it’s all been a dream. Way to gut the consequences of your whole book, Walter Farley.
Remember Pitch, who’s off in New York researching and being his usual weird self about how great the Conquistadors are?
He held the book close to his thin chest thinking how little Ray must know about Spanish-American history to believe anything in New York could be as interesting. Why, nothing could be so exciting as reading about those Spanish conquests!
I feel like I hammer this point into the ground with every Island Stallion book but: rape! genocide! cultural destruction! imperialism! none of these things are cause for excitement, Pitch!
Anyway, Pitch stops to buy a paper and lo and behold! Steve and Flame are on the front page, winning the International! It did happen after all! Pitch heads straight to the airport and back home without even returning his library book, he’s so shocked.
And that’s how we end.
Well? Did you remember the aliens? Do you think redirecting murderous impulses is a good race strategy?