Sunday, September 02, 2012

Rider at the Gate

By C. J. Cherryh
Set on an alien planet much like Earth, with mountains, prairies, oceans, rivers, forests and animals, humans have settled into walled, scattered communities and are maintaining a limited technology, equal to about the early 1900s, with limited access to telephones, electricity, and motor vehicles, trucks mainly. Because, although this planet is bountiful and fertile, its animal life is telepathic and the effect on humans is not good. So people wall themselves away from contact with the wildlife and try to maintain a grasp on their sanity. Except for the riders.
Native to the planet is a large omnivore resembling horses which the people call nighthorses. Nighthorses are attracted to human intellect and are able to bond with a chosen human, who becomes the nighthorse's rider. Riders travel with truck caravans as guards against the native wildlife and riders also serve as buffers between wildlife and the human towns, using the nighthorse telepathy to send any curious wild creatures running.
The problem with having nighthorses in your community is that they broadcast human and nighthorse images indiscriminately. So when a nighthorse rider is killed, her fellow rider and lover is grief-stricken and his grief is broadcast throughout the community, which turns on him and sends him out into the winter with only his nighthorse for company.
The rider, Guil and his nighthorse, Burn, driven away from humankind, set out to discover what really happened to Guil's lover, the woman who was killed while guiding a truck convoy through the mountains.

This sounds like an exciting premise for a book: one man and his telepathic horse, struggling to survive the winter storms of an alien world and also track down the truth behind his lover's death.  Yet somehow it just fell short. Most of the time I was just bored with it. Part of the problem was the author doesn't tell you up front what the deal is with the native animals and the nighthorses, the telepathy and how it can drive humans to the brink of insanity and how fearful the people are of that happening. So for much of the start of the book, I had a hard time figuring out what was going on with these people. The Guil character comes home to his village and is greeted with the news of his lover's death and instead of sympathy and compassion, he is driven out into the cold and shot at in the process. It just didn't make any sense. And then this "rogue" that everyone is so terrified of, I didn't get until almost the last third of the story that the rogue was a nighthorse; I kept expecting some kind of hideous monster to come charging out of the forest, instead of just a confused and anguished nighthorse.
This book might appeal more to readers who really like horses. I am not a fan of horses, I don't dislike horses but I don't care to socialize with them either. I am no more inclined to climb on the back of a horse than I would be to climb on the back of rodeo bull. To me, they are both large scary animals to be viewed from afar. But if you really like horses, then a book where the rider has a mental bond and communion with the horse might be an enjoyable read.

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