BookBrowse Reviews Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic

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Dark Horses

by Susan Mihalic

Dark Horses by  Susan   Mihalic X
Dark Horses by  Susan   Mihalic
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Feb 2021, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Oct 2021, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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Fifteen-year-old Roan Montgomery's entire life revolves around horses and equestrian eventing. While she relishes the time spent on horseback and dreams of an Olympic future, riding is also a way for her abusive father to exert control.

Dark Horses is a shocking, heart-pounding debut; it's both a coming-of-age novel and an unflinching story of resilience and survival. Fifteen-year-old Roan Montgomery is an equestrian prodigy; she attends a private high school, where she is given a special schedule allowing her to miss afternoon classes to train for her horseback riding events, which are a stepping stone to her plan of one day riding in the Olympics. In spite of her shortened class schedule, Roan receives straight As, and isn't allowed to date or attend any social events outside of school. The reason why, the reader soon finds out, is disturbing and sinister: Roan's father, also her riding coach, is in complete control of every facet of her life, and on top of the daily emotional abuse he inflicts on her, he has been sexually abusing her since early childhood.

It's an uncomfortable book from start to finish, and I would strongly advise that you exercise caution in deciding whether the rewards of reading this sound like they will outweigh the costs. It's graphic at times, and it will make your skin crawl, though it's never gratuitous. The world that Susan Mihalic creates is insular and suffocating as she skillfully places the reader entirely into Roan's life. We see the abuse play out firsthand, and we also see the extent of Roan's inability to fight back. Mihalic includes a number of shocking, unpalatable details, right down to Roan's mom — who is, perhaps surprisingly, in the picture for a large part of the book — knowing about the abuse and turning a blind eye. It's a horrific element that almost stretches the reader's suspension of disbelief, but it also adds a layer of complexity, reminding us of the cruel, harsh reality that adult relatives are not always an automatic ticket away from abuse, especially when that abuse originates from within the nuclear family unit.

Roan, too, is a tremendously complex figure. Early in the book her mother accuses her of choosing her father — of choosing the abuse, and all the benefits that come with living under his thumb (his invaluable coaching being her one-way ticket to the Olympics) — and Roan agrees. It seems like an absurd conversation at the time, because suffering abuse is never a choice. But throughout the novel, Mihalic shows us the subtle ways in which Roan does seem to choose her father, notably sighing with relief when her parents get a divorce and her mother renounces all custody, and deciding not to disclose her secrets to a social worker who approaches her when she's hospitalized for a riding accident. That these choices are made in the context of enduring a lifetime of assault naturally negates their agency, but it's an interesting decision by Mihalic to show the reader a darker side of Roan, a side singularly focused on ambition. It makes for a more unforgettable and hard-hitting book than if she had stuck to a more comfortable, less nuanced blueprint of an abuse survivor in crafting her protagonist.

Partway through the novel, things start to change for Roan when she meets Will Howard, a boy with whom she feels an immediate romantic spark. Roan initially denies the attraction, but more and more Will becomes an impetus for her to challenge her father and push limits in a way that she never has before. From this point on, the tension is palpable as Roan begins to wrest control of her life out of her father's clutches, and the stakes are so high that it's nearly impossible to put the book down until you reach the conclusion.

Dark Horses is not for everyone, but in its harrowing yet sensitive portrayal of abuse and resilience, it's a beautiful and memorable novel for the right reader.

Reviewed by Rachel Hullett

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2021, and has been updated for the November 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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  Olympic Equestrian Eventing

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