The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

I didn’t make a single note on this book, didn’t save a single highlight. That’s unusual for me; I usually take full advantage of my Kindle’s abilities to augment my memory.

Then again, I don’t really need notes in order to remember this book. I’ll remember it for a long time. It’s a sweet, sad book set in the middle of WWII about a girl sent to a mansion deep in the English countryside that has been converted to a hospital. They’re quarantined there, with an alarming disease – which is why Emmaline’s family can’t come to visit her. (Right?) She passes as much time as possible with her best friend, an older girl named Anna, drawing and talking about everything – including the beautiful winged horses they both can apparently see behind the many mirrors in the mansion.

Emmaline’s life is soon taken over by interlocking crises. One of the horses from that mirror world has crossed over to ours fleeing from the terrible Black Horse, and, badly injured, and only Emmaline can help her. Meanwhile, Anna’s health falters, and the only person Emmaline can turn to for help with the quest involved in rescuing the injured horse is the one she fears most, the local boogeyman. All the while, Emmaline must also fight the doctor and the nurses who for some reason keep trying to curtail her nighttime trips into the hospital’s grounds in the snow…

That, of course, is the surface story. Beneath it is so much more. The Black Horse is genuinely frightening – I can only imagine the scars it would have left on my horse-obsessed child self – but despite that I wish I had been able to read it then, because just as real as the fearsome enemy is the magical world through the mirrors. I can guarantee I would have been looking at anything but my own reflection for months, hoping for a glimpse of a feathered wing or a whisking tail. (Which would be a far more enjoyable side effect than the outright covering of mirrors after that Doctor Who episode … )

But then again – no. I don’t think I would really want to inflict the pain and grief in this book on my younger self. The war, the epidemic – are the horses a metaphor? Or could they, might they be real, a grace note of hope in a dark world?

It’s a heartbreaking book, gorgeously illustrated with deceptively simple black and white drawings. No, I think it’s just as well I couldn’t read this when I was smaller. It would have been crushing.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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