In this novel, Scott gives us the story of two civilizations which have been at war for generations. Those being invaded, the Allanoth of the Hundred Hills, are a culture of polytheistic egalitarians. They are sex-positive and meritocratic, and many have the ability to work with the magic that infuses their land. Those invading—the Riders—come from Manan across the Narrow Sea. They are monotheistic and hierarchical. For them, the only acceptable magic comes through their sun god, the Blazing One. Their mandate from this god is for them to take control of the lands of the Hundred Hills and impose on the people there the laws, customs, and worship of the Blazing One.
As with the Iliad, which deals only with a few weeks near the end of the Trojan War, Water Horse deals only with the end of this long war. On one side, we have Esclin Aubrinos, the arros of the Hundred Hills, and Alcis Mirielos, kyra of the Westwood. “Arros” means “water horse”; the water horses are god-like shapeshifters who inhabit the rivers in the Hundred Hills—Esclin, for example, holds his rule through the power of the Arros of Nen Elin. Meanwhile, the Westwood, near the Hundred Hills, is a magic wood which surrounds and protects the nenn of Westwood. Nenns are fortress-cities along the Hidden River, an underground river in the Hundred Hills which links all the nenns.
All these names and terms are a little confusing at first, and the opening scenes especially can be heavy going. As with Homer’s epics, we are dropped into a world already in motion, filled with cultural history and with fully developed characters. However, Scott includes a list of characters as well as a glossary at the start of novel: this goes a long way to helping us keep track of who is who.
Arrayed against Esclin and Alcis we have Reys en Nevenel, recently chosen Lord Paramount of the invading Riders, and several of his underlings. Reys has been selected by the Blazing One himself to defeat the nenns once and for all. Indeed, the novel begins with an attempt by a woman named Meleas to assassinate Esclin Aubrinos. As the leader of the Hundred Hills, Esclin is a prime target—his death, at this crucial point, would weaken the ability of the Hundred Hills to resist the upcoming invasion by the Riders: his heir is only fifteen years old, and the people of Allanoth might well not recover quickly enough from his death.
However, Meleas fails and soon afterwards dies, struck down by a raging fever sent by the Blazing One. (The Blazing One is merciless to those who fail him, something that surprises and puzzles those from the Hundred Hills. Their gods are sometimes mysterious, but in general benevolent, as well as understanding of human failings.) As Esclin and his people deal with the assassination attempt, we readers learn of a prophecy: we are told that the day a wheelman—priests of the Blazing One, so called because they pray by spinning prayer wheels—enters Nen Elin is the day the nenn will fall.
There is also a second prophecy. The ruler of Nen Elin requires a magic sword—a royal sword, infused with the power of the Arros—but the prophecy holds that “the royal sword made/by the arros betrayed” (p. 11). At the start of the novel, these two prophecies have locked Esclin into indecision: he knows he must act if he is to save the Hundred Hills, but he is caught on the horns of a dilemma (again, in the classic sense of that word). No matter what he does, his choices seem fated to lead to disaster. In the end, he chooses both to make the sword and to bring a wheelman into the nenn: like Huck Finn declaring, “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” he makes the choice he knows is right, and prepares to deal with the consequences.
And the choices Esclin makes at this juncture are crucial. For the past several decades, the Riders have attacked Allonoth in the summer, and retreated back across the sea as winter approaches. This means their yearly attacks begin well into summer, when the warriors of the Hundred Hills are in good condition to fight them off. But soon after the attempted assassination, Esclin learns that the Riders are wintering in the Coastal Cities, which have been coerced into swearing allegiance to the Blazing One. This means that the invasions by the Riders will come much sooner in the spring than ever before—that the Riders mean to attack before those in Allanoth are fully recovered from the harsh winter.
Forewarned, Alcis and Esclin spend the winter preparing for the coming battle. Among other things, Esclin has his lover and chief smith, Kelleiden, forge the royal sword for him, despite the prophecy. He also prepares his daughter and heir, Talan Esclinos, for the possibility that she will have to take his place as leader of the Hundred Hills. Meanwhile, Alcis—sometime consort to Esclin and mother to Talan—tries to determine which of her children might be able to become her koros or kore—that is, the heir to her power, which is to control and protect the magical Westwood.
Spring arrives, and the Riders begin their attacks. Esclin raises levies—troops pulled from all the nenns and from Westwood—and rides out to battle. This is where the novel kicks into high gear. From this point on, it’s almost impossible to stop reading. (Though I did stop reading at one point when I was sure that Allanoth was going to be defeated. I could not bear the possibility that they might lose.) The battle scenes are extremely well done. It’s hard to write battle scenes in a way that doesn’t either lose the reader or become tedious, and Scott manages this balance deftly, capturing the chaos of battle while always keeping the reader engaged and not even slightly confused. She also does what I’ve never seen another writer do: she shows us how exhausting battle is, both for fighters and for their horses, and shows us how that exhaustion is a factor in the outcome of any single battle as well as in the overall conflict.
Further, the overarching narrative never stops being compelling. Scott makes us understand what is at stake—why Allanoth must win—without turning the Riders into inhuman monsters. At the end, we do not like the Riders and we are glad when they are defeated; but we understand their motives, and we understand what has led them to this invasion. Further, more than one of the Wheelmen are characters we like and admire, leaving it impossible for us to see the Riders as evil incarnate.
This leads me to worldbuilding, at which Scott excels. As I note above, we are dropped into the story and into the various cultures of this world in medias res, and this makes the opening of the novel difficult. However, bit by bit, Scott reveals the world of Allanoth, a world where both men and women have agency: they can rule, they can be warriors, they can wield magic and power, they can have friendships and sexual relationships. The Allanoth is also a culture in which those in power can be argued with, have their minds changed by evidence and persuasion; and a world in which the criterion for holding and wielding power is simply whether a person has the ability and the ethics to wield that power. (We see, for instance, a ruler deciding against allowing his nephew to hold a seat on his council because that nephew is hotheaded and indiscreet [p. 17].)
We also see all the thousands of details of daily life in Allanoth: who puts meals on the table; how a sword is forged; where and how trade happens; who dispenses justice and how; what transportation is available and what it’s like; what is eaten, how medicine works, who trains who for what; how a future leader builds her coalition of advisors. This is a fascinating culture, skillfully portrayed.
The world of the Riders gets a little less attention, but we see enough to understand why it would be a tragedy for the Riders to win this war: in Manan, women must cover their hair and be submissive; rulers and priests have absolute power, and (in sharp contrast to Allanoth) anyone under them must speak carefully. In Manan, servants are held in contempt. In Manan, sex only happens within marriage, and only between men and women; in Manan, men decide who gets married and to whom; in Manan, the Blazing One chooses who will lead, and without his approval, no one can lead. In Manan, there is only one god, a male god, whose rule—like the rule of his chosen leaders—is capricious and violent. In Manan, all other gods and all forms of magic which do not come from the Blazing One are anathema, and must be utterly destroyed.
Scott makes this world and its cultures come alive for us; she also makes the characters compelling, and the vitality of its individuals is why the novel’s treatment of its two cultures isn’t purely Manichaean. Without being overtly preachy, and by investing us in the people who fight it, Scott makes us care deeply about the outcome of the long war at the center of the novel. That outcome is not at all obvious: the peril feels very real, especially as we move into the final quarter of the book, when it seems inevitable that the Riders will win, and the culture of the Blazing One will overwhelm and destroy the culture of Allanoth, which we as readers have come to love.
I have said that this work is an epic, and it is. But while the novel has much in common with Homer’s Iliad, it also has important differences. One is obvious: in the Iliad as well as in the Odyssey, women have specific and limited roles. (As the famous book by Sarah Pomeroy notes, they are goddesses, wives, whores, or slaves.) In Scott’s novel, those roles do exist, but women are also priestesses, warriors, rulers, craftworkers, human beings. The other difference is the aim of the heroes in this novel. In the Iliad, fame and honor are the big motivator for Achilles and Agamemnon. (Plunder also matters.) For the heroes in Scott’s story, the good of the people is the primary, perhaps the only, motivation. Constantly—whether they are dispensing justice, leading armies, or giving dinner parties—we see Esclin and the other rulers of the Hundred Hills working to be sure their people have food, shelter, justice, and a good future.
This is not true for the people who follow the Blazing One. For them, the leader is paramount. Those he rules must show the proper deference and submission, and—whether that ruler is the Blazing One himself or a warlord or the topman at a farmstead—whatever he wants, he must have, even when his want is motivated by a destructive need to be seen as supreme, or by sheer whim. Like their god, the rulers in Manan are neither benevolent nor especially concerned with the health and happiness of those they rule. The best of their people act out of a desire to create a world in which the Blazing One, whom they truly love, is paramount everywhere; the worst, out of a desire to see themselves honored above all. (A bit like Agamemnon and Achilles, yes.)
This is an epic unlike the classical epic in one important respect, then: the good of the people, not the honor of the heroes, is its central concern. When we realize this, we understand why Scott spent as much time as she did showing us farmers, servants, aides, children, and soldiers. The rulers may lead the country, this novel makes clear, but it is the people—all of the people—that are the country.
This is a flawlessly constructed and immensely satisfying work that rewards the attention a reader gives it. The conclusion of the plot (no spoilers!) is richly satisfying; the growth of the characters both believable and exciting; and the thematic freight, while subtle, is compelling. Highly recommended.