Remember how The Black Stallion’s Courage was (though insane in parts) essentially a pretty good horse book?
Have no fear. We return to form in spectacular fashion with this book.
The book actually begins in medias res to Courage, with a strange angry figure watching the Black win the Brooklyn Handicap. It’s really kind of weird and sets the tone for this book: if The Island Stallion Races was a science fiction book, this is trying to be horror. Hamfistedly, at best. For example:
By my oath I shall overtake him with my vengeance and destroy him!
The pair of eyes followed the boy and his giant horse to the post, showing no interest in the other two entries. They watched the stallion charge out of the starting gate with Alec Ramsay’s chin almost touching the black mane.
Death to him because of what he took from me.
Heart-rending despair and agony replaced the furious storm in the eyes as Alec and the Black flashed past the stands.
A curse on him for his wings of power. But I shall overtake him and destroy him.
Then we leave the weird crazy person and head to the backstretch, where Alec and Henry are hanging out with the Black and a stranger approaches. The stranger asks them all sorts of weirdly intimate questions about the Black – like he’s thrilled to have Alec tell him that the Black snores??? – and gives off a creepy vibe but I’m just going to spoil you right now: the stranger really is just a totally random person and plays absolutely no role in anything that happens in the rest of the book.
Chekhov would like a word with you about your shitty plotting, Walter Farley.
Anyway, it mostly serves as a way to do some more recapping, and some more hammering of a central theme of the Black Stallion books: those women, who even knows???
“Humph,” [Henry] grunted. “The likes of him’s got no use for braids. That’s for women an’ tame horses an’ he knows it.
It also gives us this absolutely hilarious bit from Alec:
“He’s a terrific eater,” Alec added. “Three meals a day he takes. Six quarts of oats, four whole and two crushed. Maybe thirty pounds of hay, too, special from the farm – timothy and a little clover thrown in for dessert. And sometimes I give him a salad for good measure – lettuce with a little endive, romaine, and leaves of the chicory plant. He likes it a lot.”
A salad of mixed greens (chicory!!!) as a special treat, I’m dying.
Random stranger leaves, and it comes up that a local horse dealer has imported three yearlings from Spain, which sets off alarm bells for Henry because Spain, what the hell do they know about racehorses? Why would they send over yearlings?
So of course Henry and Alec decide to go see the yearlings. They get there and find – gasp – that they are like mini Blacks! There’s a lot of flailing about this, and particularly weirdly they go on and on about how the yearlings are what they have been trying and failing to breed.
Hopeful Farm: still the weirdest breeding operation on the planet. They openly admit here that the Black is not siring the kinds of horses they want (“They’re everything we’ve tried to breed…and haven’t.”) and yet THEY KEEP BREEDING HIM. And yet he’s sired a Triple Crown winner (Satan), a Derby winner (Black Minx), a Hambletonian winner (Bonfire) and they’ve got who even knows how many foals on the ground from him. So their strategy is a) ignore their own proven success in favor of b) continuing to breed a stallion that isn’t getting them what they want. WHAT THE HELL.
Anyway, they conclude that these yearlings HAD to have been sired by the Black’s sire because…I don’t know? Like if you saw three yearlings that looked an awful lot like your horse wouldn’t your first assumption be that they were also by the same (LONG DEAD) stallion?
So of course they head off to Spain to go find out what’s going on. (Presumably Alec’s dad is taking care of rebuilding the barn that burned down in Courage? And they have plenty of money to go off to Spain? WITH THE BLACK?)
They get to Spain and meet a guy named Angel Gonzalez who is a seriously weird dude.
“Please,” [Gonzalez] added, “there must not be formality for I feel we have known one another for years. May I call you Henry? And you Alec?”
…sure? But Alec is kind of a dick, just FYI, not sure you want to be friends with him.
It wasn’t going to be easy to be courteous and polite, to look at their host without flinching before his unnatural ugliness.
Just to give you the rundown real quick, Gonzalez is a young rich guy who owns a ranch that primarily raises bulls for the fighting ring. He’s got a bunch of scars, and he’s also maybe sick? Or maybe not? Alec keeps thinking that he’s sick but he shows no actual signs of being sick.
He shows them the stallion that he says sired the yearlings, a black stallion named El Dorado, and it is pretty clearly not the right horse. The way he’s described he sounds very typey for a Baroque horse. Oh, and Gonzalez uses him in bullfighting. So really not Arabian at all. Except Gonzalez claims he is?
Alec sneaks out in the middle of the night to go see El Dorado close up and there’s a whole really dumb scene where he accidentally gets into the bull’s pasture and somehow escapes because his white shirt rips and he uses it as a flag like a bullfighter. At night. It’s so typically Alec, saved by plot again.
The next morning, Gonzalez decides to show off and proceeds to stage a bullfight in his own arena on his horse. Farley plays this up as totally insane and not the kind of thing that’s ever done but frankly it reads exactly like every bullfight ever? If you don’t know much about the practice, there’s often a phase when a horseback rider tires the bull out before the matador on foot enters. (If you want to see a video of it without gore, this is a good example; I don’t suggest just Googling if you’re squeamish.) Gonzalez mucks it up and almost dies, and Alec has to run in and save him somehow because of course he does.
Gonzalez admits that El Dorado is not the Black’s sire, and promises to take them somewhere they can learn the truth. So they all get on a plane with this guy they have known for maybe 36 hours. He says it will be a short plane ride. It’s not.
“Where do you think we are, anyway? Not that it matters.”
“Maybe the Balkans.”
OF COURSE IT MATTERS WHY WOULDN’T IT MATTER?!? You just met this guy and he’s flying you somewhere random to do something that he won’t give you details about!
Gonzalez lands somewhere in the middle of nowhere. They all get out. And then Gonzalez leaves them.
[Henry] and Alec ran after the plane, shouting into the wind, “Why Gonzalez, why? Don’t leave us alone, here! What are you doing, Gonzalez? What are you doing? Wait for us! Come back, Gonzalez! Come back! You can’t leave us here!”
Look. I don’t want to victim blame BUT WHAT EXACTLY DID YOU EXPECT FROM ALL OF THIS YOU FUCKING IDIOTS.
We then get a very long segment where Henry and Alec and the Black wander around…somewhere. The landscape isn’t really clearly described. It’s mountainous and kind of like a dessert, but not really. They have some food but really no water. They are basically screwed.
At night they see something strange in the distance – a horse running in the mountains.
Their hearts turned cold when they saw the trail of phosphorescent sparks the horse was streaming in his wake! It was a shimmering streak of blue and red and orange lights. It swept from the mountainside into the depths and then was gone.
Henry compares the horse to Firetail which…okay, sure.
The next day, they are stumbling along what they think is a road when a open carriage pulls up. A woman leans out of the carriage and says “Welcome home, Shetan! We’ve been waiting for you.”
In case you thought this could not get weirder, you were wrong!
The couple in the carriage turn out to be our old friends Tabari ben Ishak and her husband Abd-al-Rahman, who last showed up in The Black Stallion Returns. To refresh: Tabari is the daughter of the guy who bred and owned the Black, and she was flipping awesome in the previous book.
Too bad both of them have had total personality transplants because literally nothing about their characterization is the same from the last book. Literally. Nothing. They’re both half-insane weirdos who say and do things for totally inexplicable reasons. They used to be kind of great! Did Walter Farley forget to read his own backstory???
Alec recognized her but she looked a far different person from the one he remembered. Was that so strange, though? He had last seen her as a growing girl. Now she was a woman.
Seriously Walter Farley has such a Madonna/whore complex it’s ridiculous. She was great when she was a young, innocent [virginal] girl! Now she’s all mean and weird. WOMEN, AMIRITE?
Then the book pretends that al-Rahman has never met the Black.
The man whistled softly. “He’s all you said, Tabari.”
THE ENTIRE POINT OF THE BLACK STALLION RETURNS WAS THAT HE RACED HIS STALLION AGAINST THE BLACK AAAAAUUUUUGGGGGHHHHH.
Tabari has also gone full English. I think in the last book they mentioned that she went to boarding school in England but her mannerisms here are totally different. She’s prim and proper and wearing dresses.
“My wife is like all women. She seeks to love and dominate at the same time. I suppose I have spoiled her, though. There is so little she can do here.”
Fuck you, dude.
Still no explanation on where “here” is. It’s some kind of mountain fortress built to hide horses. It’s where the Black’s sire lived – or maybe lives?
We get to the crux of the whole book: al-Rahman is convinced that the Black’s sire is still alive, because a) he sees the flaming horse sometimes too and b) they had three mares who turned up surprise pregnant and foaled out those yearlings that they sent to America and he went to the same logic school as Alec and Henry.
It turns out that sending the yearlings to America was a ploy to get Alec and Henry to…wherever they are. Because al-Rahman is convinced that the only way to catch the sire – whose name is Ziyadah – is to chase him down with the Black. Yeah. That’s his actual plan. Just run around chasing the ghost horse. With the Black.
They do this for a whole bunch of days and finally Alec says it’s dumb and al-Rahman loses his mind and accuses Alec of cowardice and laziness and all sorts of nasty things. Dude, you’re the one who tricked/kidnapped Alec, and now he’s decided he doesn’t want to spend all night, every night looking for a ghost horse and HE’S the asshole?
Henry, meanwhile, has been making plans.
“I’ve been talkin’ to some of these gardeners. Not that we understand each other’s lingo but they have an idea what I’m after. They hold up the fingers of both hands five times when I ask them how far it is to their village. An’ they point to the south, past the field where we landed. I figure they mean it’s fifty miles that way. All we got to do is get a few cans of grub, give the Black his head to the south an’ go. With his keen scent we’ll find our way all right. We’re no fools.”
The mind boggles at Henry’s idiocy here.
Anyway they’re not leaving because Tabari says she saw a hoofprint! Except it doesn’t look like a hoofprint. But it’s definitely a hoofprint, even though it doesn’t look anything like one! Alec decides to go out one last night.
He said to his horse, “I only hope you’ve saved something in case we meet up with Ziyadah. If you haven’t, it won’t be much of a race.”
Alec thinks of literally everything as a race. WTF.
He sees a flash of light in the distance:
Had it been made by a pawing, plated hoof striking stone?
WHO IS SHOEING THIS LOST/GHOST/WILD HORSE, ANYWAY?
It is Ziyadah, though, or it must be, he doesn’t actually really see the horse, anyway, off they go on a sort of weird steeplechase except the Black doesn’t quite clear one of the fences – he drops a hind leg and it gets stuck between two planks of wood on the top of the fence.
Maybe I’m not reading this correctly, but let’s review:
- the Black jumps this stone wall + boards from a full gallop
- he lands from the fence and instantly stops, mid-landing (he’s described as forelegs on the ground, belly on the fence, hind hoof stuck)
- SOMEHOW HE DOES NOT BREAK A LEG OR ROTATE OR ANYTHING? HE JUST STOPS MIDAIR AND WAITS FOR ALEC TO FREE HIM?
So yeah. That happens. Alec decides it was intentional! Someone set a trap! By putting planks of wood on top of a stone wall!
Our old friend Gonzalez shows up with his plane, and Alec and Henry decide to leave with him, which makes al-Rahman even more furious. So they’re laying low but because of al-Rahman’s temper tantrums Alec locks the stall which made me SUPER nervous for the rest of the book because I was convinced there would be a fire and ugh.
Anyway no fire but Alec wanders the house because he can’t sleep. He is in a living room when he smells liniment which leads to him being convinced that either a) someone is hiding a horse in the house (?!) or someone is sabotaging the Black (!?!?!?). So he goes down to the basement and looks all through it: nothing. He goes out and checks on the Black and finds an iron ring in the floor of Ziyadah’s stall! Which leads to a trap door!
He finds a whole stable complex underground, including – surprise! – Ziyadah. He also uncovers the key to the horse-on-fire trick.
His hoofs were encased in a rubber sheath which was covered with sequins of many colors! They sparkled brilliantly in the play of light. They would also leave no tracks.
SEQUIN GLITTER BOOTS I’M DYING.
There’s also a long sequin glitter cape, and a flashlight. So the mechanism is to dress horse and rider up in sequins and then shine the light to make them sparkle. Which would be totally visible from a distance and definitely look like they were both on fire.
Then comes the denouement of the whole book. The ghostly rider is actually Tabari. Ziyadah has been alive the whole time. And Tabari lured Alec here so she could kill the Black – because her father died falling from him. The following is her evil genius plan.
- secretly breed Ziyadah to three mares
- send the yearlings to Gonzalez in Spain, then on to America to tempt Alec and Henry
- have Gonzalez trick them into flying to…wherever they are
- get Alec and the Black to chase Ziyadah
- kill them and make it look like an accident
That is some Bond villain stupidity right there. I feel like she could’ve hired a guy with a crowbar and skipped right to the last step without all the expense, time, travel, and stress.
Anyway, I’ll give the secret underground stable this: it sounds awesome. There are living quarters, a huge indoor arena complete with jumps (“jumps over brush and banks, stones and timber and water”), a fireplace with comfy couches, the works. I’d totally live there.
Alec realizes that he’s been discovered, and he rushes to get to the Black. Literally here’s his thought process: oh no, she knows I’m here! I need to get to the Black!
He had no doubt that Ziyadah and his rider would be waiting for them to follow. This was part of the deadly game being played. He felt confident of the outcome of such a race if it took place on the plain.
Off they go! They gallop all over the place, with loads of jumps in between because the Black is now a steeplechaser too, and they catch up to Tabari, who villain-splains that she hates the Black because he killed her father. Then she fires a gun (so much for making it look like an accident) and the two stallions rise up to fight each other and Alec falls off and hits his head.
When he wakes up, Tabari is thrilled that she’s killed the Black, except she and Alec are alone in the dark on the mountainside. Alec takes her at her word and is super-upset until the Black trots up. Tabari actually managed to shoot her own horse. Which is both horrible and really dumb.
The Black came to them and Alec put a hand on his wet neck. ” I guess we’re going to keep a lot to ourselves,” he told his horse. “We’re going to forget there ever was a Ziyadah and that we caught up with him too late. We’re going to let Tabari tell her husband as much or as little as she pleases. It’s enough that we’re going home together.”
That is a stunningly mature thing for Alec to express.
They do, indeed, head home. On the plane home there’s a teaser, though: Gonzalez’s maid/housekeeper is reading a newspaper with a mystery racehorse on the front. He won a race in Cuba and then vanished.
Yep, it’s time for the Black and Flame to face off in an epic crossover event.
(Not right away, though, next week is The Horse Tamer.)
Well, do you remember this one? What do you think about what Farley did to Tabari? Do you think you could dream up a few more steps to Tabari’s plan to make it even more complicated?