Published by Soho Teen
Published on September 13th 2016
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From the internationally bestselling author of Gossip Girl comes a dark, psychologically complex update of Black Beauty replete with jealousy, romance, mystery, and redemption.
Merritt Wenner has been self-destructing ever since the tragic deaths of her grandmother and her horse, and after an epic all-night bender she walks out of the SAT and disappears. Her parents, looking for a quick fix, ship her off to a residential equine therapy program.
At Good Fences, Merritt meets Red—a failed racehorse and a terror in the barn. Red has never bonded with anyone, but Merritt is not afraid of him, which makes all the difference. Soon they’re sneaking rides after curfew, which catches the attention of Red’s owner. Recognizing their potential, he funds their launch into the competitive hunter/jumper circuit.
Against the cutthroat backdrop of competitive riding, Merritt and their groom, Beatrice, develop an attraction. Merritt also finds herself drawn to Carvin, a rival rider. But in Red’s mind, Merritt belongs to him alone. Anyone else poses a threat. And Merritt can’t foresee what he’ll do to keep her to himself.
I received a copy of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
When Merritt walks out of her SATs and goes on a bender, her parents send her to an equine rehabilitation camp called Good Fences where she meets Big Red, a former racing Thoroughbred recovering from injury and with a Big Bad Attitude to match. Red takes a liking to Merritt and claims her as his own, and when the two impress their sponsor and join the professional show circuit, Red won’t let anyone or anything come between him and his human.
I really liked the idea of reading alterative points of view from both Merritt, a damaged teen girl, and Big Red, and equally damaged and somewhat unhinged beautiful chestnut Thoroughbred. Merritt had no idea Red was so malicious though, although she loved him, she still only thought of him as a horse whose responsibility she could pass over to someone else. Red and Merritt don’t even start off liking each other and that’s the best kind of relationship I like reading about. Red very soon decided that if he ‘belongs’ to Merritt then he’s going to behave and do his best for her, and that’s when they get pulled into the professional show circuits because let’s face it, someone who walks out of their SAT isn’t exactly going to go to university. Merritt’s parents are largely absent and although she seems to bond with fellow competitor Carvin, he quickly cools off. Instead, the sponsor’s reckless, out of control daughter Beatrice, working as Red’s groom, revolves into Merritt’s life and VERY briefly makes the audience question if there’s going to be a bisexual romance before Big Red takes matters into his own… um… hooves.
It’s Red’s jealousy that I’m torn up over how I should feel. Because 1) I mean come on, he’s a loyal herd animal and he clearly has chosen Merritt as his ‘person’, much the way one of my three cats has chosen me as her ‘person’ and is practically my little shadow an that is seriously one of the best feelings you can get from an animal you love. 2) I know Red knows he does the wrong thing on occasion but he does try to be good for Merritt.
I loved Red’s narrative voice. Because playing a radio soothed him, he knew a lot of lyrical references and forever threw them into his own narrative. Even though he doesn’t speak, he sure gave off a lot of feeling and despite his nasty streak I really empathised with him. He was such a great character that even though he does bad things, I’m finding it hard to judge him harshly. He’s smart and loyal and loves Merritt.
Merritt Wenner (whose name I like to think of more like ‘Merit Winner’) doesn’t handle abandonment issues very well, so when people in her life leave her or she just can’t cope, she likes to drink and take random drugs to deal with it, which is what landed her at Good Fences. She’s abrasive and rebellious and the only thing good in her life is basically Red. I didn’t really feel like she had as much of a character arc as the horse did because at the end of the novel she’s in the same place she was at the beginning, and I was really disappointment when she half-heartedly entered a plot to steal Red only to quickly abandon him. Like she almost couldn’t decide whether she loved him or not.
The writing was contemporary, not exactly graceful, but fun with Red’s lyrical inputs. I didn’t really have an issue with it, it wasn’t over the top purple or lyrical and it wasn’t gritty and urban it just kind of was the middle of the road. Definite the best thing about the writing was Red’s narrative voice. I really felt like I was looking out of the eyes of a slightly deranged horse. Although it was kind of weird how smart he was… like he knew how much he weighed, for example. I thought that was weird.
The pace of this book was like that of a Thoroughbred – almost to the point of reckless. It felt rushed, like how quickly Bea’s feelings for Merritt grew and then BAM that’s all over. We completely missed Merritt’s winter training in Florida and went straight to the professional circuit. It seemed like the author was just so keen on getting everything down and telling this somewhat thrilling story that the whole thing seemed rushed and could have done with some padding out. For example, the girls at the Good Fences all jumbled into one, even when one of them was plucked out and promoted to supporting character rather than bit player.
I really enjoyed Dark Horses. Because of the plural in the title I kept expecting another horse to be dark like Red but nope, it was just him. From the first moment I loved the idea of a horse over its rider and this book really delivered pretty much what I expected and what I wanted. I would really recommend it to YA readers who like a bit of a thrill or those readers who enjoy troubled teen stories.
Start playing at 2:13.