House of the Star, by Caitlin Brennan, aka Judith Tarr, (2010, Tor, middle grade, 288 pages) is an absolutely must-read book for any young girl who likes horses and fantasy. It was written with that audience in mind, and succeeds beautifully.
Elen has always dreamed of being chosen to ride a worldrunner--one of the horses who can travel the path between the worlds. But she's a princes of the world of Ymbria, as well as being a horse-loving girl, and she's not sure how it's going to happen.
When her chance does come to go to the House of the Star, a ranch on earth (in Arizona, to be more specific) where the worldrunners are bred and their riders are trained, it comes with a pretty steep price. Ymbria has been at war for years with another world, Caledon, and among the other young recruits in Elen's cohert there will be a member of the Caledonian royal family. Elen is convinced that political matchmaking is behind it all, and the thought is so abhorrent that she decides to run away from home, along the world road to a far off land of green grass (and lots of horses).
But without a worldrunner to ride, Elen finds the road far more perilous than she had imagined....it's only the unlooked for arrival of Bianca, one of the magical horses, that saves her.
When Bianca takes a protesting Elen to the House of the Star, Elen finds that the war between Ymbria and Caledon is threatening the fabric of the whole road--it is beginning to crumble into a maelstrom of fairy magic. The Horned King has threatened to interdict her planet, and the worldrunners are finding it ever more difficult to survive the chaotic creatures that are besetting the road.
Elen must find it in herself to make peace with her Caledonian counterpart, and end the war. But she's not ready to put her anger aside, until the beautiful horses themselves come under threat.
Elen's by no means a stereotypical princess--she's willing to muck out stalls, for instance! And she's stubborn, sometimes to the point where the reader wants to shake her a tad. But she's all the more believable for this, and it makes her gradual acceptance that peace might be possible all the more compelling.
As Judith Tarr, the author wrote "Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting it Right". Her expertise is front and center here--and it's always nice when the competencies of the writer come through in the small details of a book, adding credibility and richness to the story.
Skewed slightly younger than Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, the classic horse fantasy, this is one that should utterly delight its target audience. Full of beautiful horses, dark magic, and escalating tension, it pleased me lots too! In particular, I'm always a sucker for a nicely nuanced Horned Lord.
Although, in the interests of full disclosure, I'm not, myself, a horse crazy girl anymore, and for this to be the perfect book for me it needed to have a bit of romance, which it doesn't have. Not the book's fault, of course, but this is the main reason why this falls into middle grade, despite the heroine being a teenager. Incidentally, both Amazon and my library system have it as YA, but the publisher says "Grade Range: 4 to 8, Age Range: 8 to 12." I myself say "10-14." Or possibly "9-13." Something like that, at any rate.
(Based on the description of Elen in the book as brown skinned and dark haired, which is (more or less) corroborated by the cover (or at least not egregiously contradicted by the cover), this one gets a place in my multicultural sci fi/fantasy list).