Friday, August 4, 2017

Summer Series: The Black Stallion Returns


The Black Stallion Returns, by Walter Farley

Oh, boy, you guys. You know what happened? Walter Farley had his book published, at long last, and he said, "you know what everyone loved about the first book? The random bit with the Black being loaded onto the ship at the beginning, and the casually racist stereotyping of the port. How about I write a whole book about that, with, just for shits and giggles, 75% less horse content?"

Which is to say: this is a way different book than the first one. First, a rough summary:

Hours after a mysterious stranger tries to kill the Black, a man appears claiming to be the horse's real owner. He takes the Black away, but Alec is given a second chance to see his horse when Tom Volence, owner of Sun Raider, decides to take Alec and Henry on a trip to the Middle East to try and buy more horses like the Black. They arrive after a long journey and a series of mishaps to find themselves in the middle of a tribal war. The fighting isn't long over when Alec has to ride the Black in a major race to help his owner win horses and save face.
So the original book is pretty thin on the ground in terms of plot. Boy rescues horse, boy races horse. This book has like 5x as much plot crammed into weirdly paced sprints amidst pages and pages and PAGES of pointless, dumb, weird, travelogue.

But let's start at the beginning, shall we?
"He was out of his stall. Someone's been here...there's been a fight of some kind. He's sweated."
I mean, if you heard a disturbance in your barn in the middle of the night and found your horse roaming the aisle and sweating heavily, wouldn't you think that he'd been in a fistfight? (Again, we see more of the Black's magical colic immunity, because to me loose horse + heavy sweat = colic.)

Turns out there's a random needle lying on the ground! Henry will have the police analyze it and get fingerprints and figure out what's in it, because that's what the police have time for in WWII America.

Many things have been retconned for this book, including Alec getting a whole lot of common sense all of a sudden about how the Black is not, and never will be, a Thoroughbred. Another is that somehow it turns out there were survivors from the Drake after all, which there definitely were not in the first book. What a pointless thing to change.

Rest assured, Alec is still kind of an idiot, though.
"Y'mean you think he had stolen him?" [asked Henry]
"Yes. For one thing, he acted as though he had...always kept to himself. Then he was too cruel to the Black. If he owned him, he wouldn't have done the things that he did."
Oh, Alec, you sweet summer child. Thankfully, Henry disabuses him of that fantasy right quick.

They deduce that the man who tried to kill the Black was from the Middle East because...reasons? (Actually they think he's from Arabia but once again, not a country, guys!) But they barely have time to catch their breath because the police arrive with a man named Abu Ja'Kub ben Ishak (who is really only ever referred to by that full, weirdly fake Arabic name throughout the book) who says he owns the Black and he has papers! that prove it.
"I'd like to see them," Alec interrupted, turning to Abu Ja'Kub ben Ishak.
The tall man handed the papers to Alec, who read them carefully. After a moment he looked at the policemen. One of them, guessing what was foremost in his mind, said, "We've checked Washington and he's who he says he is."
Again...do I need to remind you all that this is in the middle of World War II? This book was published in 1945.

There's not really anything more to the next 30 pages. Ben Ishak takes the Black, because PAPERS, and Alec spends the rest of the spring moping. Also, he becomes like the world's greatest student and locks himself up in his bedroom all the time studying which is...totally what happens to 17 year old boys when they get depressed? There are some genuinely painful moments, though.
"He saved my life, Henry," Alec said. He attempted to go on, but his voice broke. His shoulders swept forward, and Henry knew that he was crying.
<3 Alec, even if in his shoes I would have murdered anyone who tried to take my horse with my own two bare hands. He does love the Black, and the only really good parts of this book (apart from Tabari, whose awesomeness we will expound upon at length later) are the moments of their relationship.

Tom Volence shows up, and tries to buy the Black. When he finds out the Black is gone, he's bummed, and lets drop that he's going to England to buy horses. Alec and Henry convince him to go to "Arabia" instead and look up ben Ishak and buy horses like the Black. Volence is nothing if not a canny, astute businessman so of course he thinks this is the best idea ever and immediately arranges for just the three of them to head on over.

Before we embark on the world's most boring travelogue, I'd like to say a word about Alec's parents, who have improved in some ways and gotten waaaaaay worse in others. Primarily, his mother; there are one or two lines in here that indicate that she's really upset and conflicted that Alec is jaunting off again, but also that she doesn't dare say or do anything about it because she is a 1950s housewife right out of Mad Men who is going to suffer a mental breakdown behind the scenes somewhere because Walter Farley doesn't think women are real human beings with complexities and motivations.

Whew. Glad I got that off my chest. Anyway, Alec's father is still the worst.
"Sure, Mom, I will...honest, I will. I'll be careful as I can. Why, this trip will do me worlds of good, so don't you worry. Travel is the best education a guy can get."
 His father grabbed him by the belt of his trousers. "And that reminds me. Don't get back here months after everyone else has started school. Remember, you're going to college next fall."
lololol complete abdication of parental responsibility is always best enforced by threats of physical violence.

Commence the trip, which is like 6 legs long and described in excruciating detail and I think involved seaplanes? I don't know, I blacked out from boredom a lot. The only plot-related thing about the trip is that there is a man on the plan who the reader knows is the same person who tried to kill the Black (at least, the even marginally not braindead reader, because he's described in precisely the same language) but Alec just think is a random weirdo who knows everything about his entire life.
Still, since he was an Arab, it was in all probability only natural that he should take an interest in American racing.
God damn it, Alec.

When they land, Alec notices that the random guy (now named Ibn al Khaldun) has a medallion just like the one they found near the Black after the aborted attempt to kill him. Which leads them to commandeer a car and chase him all through a random city they just landed in for...reasons? I don't know. Everyone gets even stupider once they land.

They find out that ben Ishak is way far away from where they are, and they need an expedition and a guide. Thankfully, Volence's college buddy has a ward named Raj who will accompany them on their trip. They set off. There are lots of descriptions of camels and sand and heat and after a sandstorm, they're all abandoned with only one camel. Thankfully Raj is around, both to save them and to provide a crush object for Alec.
He wanted to know Raj better...to find out how he felt about everything - horses, books, school, his life in Arabia. And in turn Alec wanted to tell him about the United States, about his home, about his horse. 
I BET YOU DID, ALEC. (I know it was 1945 but this book would have been 1000% better with a romance storyline between Raj and Alec. If you think I'm making any of this up, there are about a half a dozen similar bits that I chose not to quote because this is getting way too long already.)

They make it to the mountains and meet a mysterious man riding a chestnut horse who is described much like the Black - savage, wild, huge, small-headed, all of the above. He escorts them to the edge of ben Ishak's territory and leaves them, and then we meet the best character in the entire book in a weirdly objectifying and racist way.
Her skin was honey-colored; sleek-oiled hair crowned a heart-shaped face, and oblique almond eyes peered curiously at them. She was neither white nor black, neither of the East nor of the West. Her full lips parted and she spoke in Arabic, her voice low and husky.
Turns out she's Tabari, ben Ishak's daughter, and she rides a white mare named Johar, and basically she swans around the rest of the book being awesome. Oh, and she is not half-English or anything else, that description was just pointlessly weird and Farley's attempt to exoticise her.

Oh and just for kicks:
"I think, in fact I am certain, Mr. Volence, that you have seen only one Arabian of purest blood, and that was Johar, the white one my daughter, Tabari, was riding today. There are few others like her in Arabia, and certainly none in any foreign country."
sigh. I know some of you are Arabian people: were there really none of them outside the Middle East in 1945? That seems unlikely in the extreme to me.

We learn several things in quick succession, so I'll bullet them out for you.

  • Ben Ishak is holding on to the Black, nice try, Alec
  • The guy who escorted them up the hill is named Abd-al-Rahman, and he hates ben Ishak, because he thinks ben Ishak killed his parents, which he totally didn't
  • The Black is entered into a race that happens every five years, and the winner of the race gets his pick of 15 horses from everyone else entered, which is like the shittiest zero sum game ever. Ben Ishak has been losing a lot, so he needs the Black to win.
Remember what I said about pacing? That info dump is in a couple of pages, and the last ~50 pages of the book get INSANE. After literally hundreds of pointless pages about drinking camel vomit and being hot, the narrative goes turbo-charged right through to the end of the book.

First things first: the Black is stolen by the guy who has been exercising him with plans to ride in the big race. Alec was already upset at the way the guy rode the Black but honestly given the Black's attempted murder of everyone else who touches him it's damn impressive the guy can ride the horse at all. Alec and Raj go on a very romantic moonlight tracking expedition to find him, at the same time as for some reason ben Ishak is riding to lay siege to Abd-al-Rahman's fortress...I think because they thought he stole the Black? Or something? Like I said, it all happens very fast.

Alec and Raj find the Black, held captive by the very same shady character who tried to kill him on page 1 and rode over on the plan with them. Al Khaldun then monologues (for three pages!!!) his way to explaining the entire background plot of the book, to wit:

  • He has an entire group of outcasts ready to murder everyone out of revenge and to take control of this corner of the desert;
  • He was the one who killed al-Rahman's parents, who, SURPRISE PLOT TWIST, were also Raj's parents, because Raj was found abandoned as a baby in the desert;
  • He stole the Black because he wanted ben Ishak to lose the race because then al-Rahman would win the race and they could kill him and ben Ishak or...I have no idea, you guys, the Black is totally incidental to this plot.
Oh, and he had twenty years to make this plan. TWENTY YEARS, and that was the shitty plan he came up with? Jesus.
His brain whirled with the rapidity with which everything had fallen into place.
Alec speaks for us all.

Raj leaves to warn everyone, and Alec stays to rescue the Black, of course. He gets on the Black, and there is a very confusing scene in which they run back and forth in a canyon, trapped. It's no wonder, because we get descriptions like this.
He gave the Black his head, but kept him to a walk.
[...] 
The stallion attempted to break out of the running walk at which Alec had held him.
Magical gaited stallion!

Alec and the Black are captured, and I guess tortured by al Khaldun, who tries to pull Alec's arm out of his socket. Then the crux of the plan.
"You are wondering, aren't you?" Ibn al Khaldun asked. "It is simple and you are fortunate, for death will be quick. It is a pity I can't take longer, but it will, I suppose, take a little time to find your friend in the canyon, and all must be done before morning for we have other work then." He paused and grinned. "Just a short distance up the canyon there is a cliff with a perpendicular drop of three hundred feet or so to the rocks below. You and your Black shall be driven over it. It is a pleasant way to die, is it not? The two of you inseparable even in death?"
Oh my God someone should send this guy rules for being a bad guy because between the monologuing and the elaborate Bond-style death scene he is just terrible.

They get out of it basically because the Black is taking no shit and attacks the horses of the people charged with driving them forward...and also at that exact moment Raj brings the cavalry in the form of the combined forces of ben Ishak and al-Rahman.

Everyone returns home, and with the original jockey a traitor and also dead, ben Ishak says Alec can ride the Black in the big race. It's a four mile track with both straightaway and a mountain climb, and Alec has not a moment's worry or hesitation despite his promise to his mother to try and be safe: he is all in.

The race itself is basically a blur of galloping over terrain that really should barely be trotted through, neck and neck with al-Rahman and his chestnut Sagr. Halfway through the race, though, they get shot at, and surprise! It's Ibn al Khaldun, who's not dead yet! So they both deviate to chase him down, shoot him, then rejoin the race, still in the lead. Then there's the straightaway gallop to the finish line.
The Black left the trail and pounded onto the desert. Stumbling as his hoofs sank into the sand, he recovered and drove forward.
...with magically unblemished tendons.

Look: do I need to tell you that Alec and the Black win? They do. Of course they do. There is much rejoicing, and Alec is all of a sudden okay with the Black staying behind, because he is where he belongs.

The last bit of the book sets up the next one, and arguably, the whole series: ben Ishak will give Alec the Black's first foal, out of Johar, Tabari's white mare.

Bring it on, Son of the Black Stallion!

6 comments:

  1. Crying haha. Your reviews are bringing back so many memories of these books.

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  2. Oh, please continue this series! I remember LOVING all these books at age... eight? ... and then wondering why they were not as engrossing when re-read as adults. Tee hee.

    Betsy in WI

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  3. This is pretty much my favorite review ever :) I remember the book being bad, and the movie being even worse!

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  4. My middle school library had the entire Walter Farley collection...I found them engaging when I was 10, but even back then I remember thinking, "WTF???" when I was reading through this one! And yes, I agree with T, the movie was even worse than the book!

    Your review is genius. I had tears streaming down my face because I was laughing so hard! Do keep these up! :D

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  5. I can't wait to read the next review because I never made it past this book!

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  6. I never need to re-read them again after these fantastic reviews. Freaking perfect. Can't wait for the next installment.

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