Riders of the Realm: Across the Dark Waters, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez--tackling slavery and colonialsm with flying horses

It was a hard week of Library Booksale work coming at the end of a busy, busy April, so it is nice that is over with, and I can settle down to reading and reviewing (and maybe yardwork....).   I did get a fair amount of reading done while working at the library, but it was mostly oddments that were for sale, and not the books here at home that need reading.  So for my one and only review this week, here are my thoughts on Riders of the Realm: Across the Dark Waters, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez.

This is the first book of a continuation series of Alverez's Guardian Herd books; it's not a direct sequel, but takes existing characters from those books and sets them on a new path.  Echofrost is one of the leaders of a group of winged horse who decide to abandon their homeland and the battle between two legendary stallions that is raging there, and which threatens to overwhelm all the clans of winged horses. Storm Herd, as they call themselves, plans to settle on another continent, keeping their kind from the threat of extinction.  So they fly across the dark waters, to a far-off land of jungles.

To the surprise of Storm Herd, there are already flying horses in this place, but they don't fly free.  Instead, they serve the landwalkers (humans), part of a great military force in which each stead is paired for life with a human rider.  This force sets off to pursue the wild herd, and one wild mare is captured.  Echofrost goes back for her friend, allowing herself to be captured too, thinking she can save the both of them.  To her horror, her feathers are immediately cut so she can no longer fly.  With escape impossible for the moment, she finds that she has just volunteered, in essence, for slavery (about which more after the plot summary).  Only one young boy, Rahkki, wins a small measure of her trust.

Rahkki is the other point-of-view character, and though he has a complicated backstory that means he has no hope of being a Rider himself, he is able to get to know the wild mare.  Their relationship ends up being crucial not just to the trajectory of their individual lives, but to the fate of both the realm and of Storm Herd. The jungle queendom is threatened by a race of giants (about which more below).  War has begun, and Storm Herd has been caught in it.   And Echofrost is faced once again with a terrible choice--friends or freedom?

The Guardian Herd series was lovely fodder for kids who enjoy animal epic adventures with magic.  This series takes the world into much more complicated territory, and for me at least the moral and ethicial questions posed were more interesting than the plot (although the plot is perfectly fine and I see no reason why kids who like animal adventures won't love it).  For starters, there's the whole slavery of sentient beings. This is a troubling part of the book, because slavery is troubling.  The reader is not allowed to see the winged horses as domesticated animals, because clearly Echofrost is a sapient protagonist, but the pegasi of the realm have had generations of brainwashing, and do not realize that "freedom" is something they should want.

Echofrost learns that obeying her trainer's commands means she will not be hurt, and has to walk a delicate line between cooperating on the outside and keeping the flames of rebellion burning on the inside.   She tries to convince the enslaved pegasi to seek freedom, but  they sincerely love the riders they are paired with, and it is hard to make them see that they are not equal partners.  Alverez certainly made me feel uncomfortable with this set-up, and I think she is forthright enough in her portrayal of Echofrost's thoughts young readers will also be made to think about the ethical implications of the relationship between pegasi and their riders (which is a good thing).

Alverez also throws another thought-provoking twist into the story.  The race of giants are the "bad guys."  They are rumored to eat pegasi.  They are the aggressive, uncivilized attackers. However, Alverez makes it clear, fairly obviously, and quickly enough to make it possible to keep reading without flinging the book away because of this harmful trope of barbarians vs civilization, that there is more to the story.  Right when the giants are first introduced to the plot, the reader is told that the farmlands carved from the jungle were originally the giants' homeland, from which they were driven away.  The reader also learns that the giants are not necessarily brutish at all--they can communicate in sign language.   The reader must make of this what she will, but when Rahkki concludes that the giants' final attach of the story is motivated by a desire for a bargaining chip to exchange for the return of their land, the point  that there was injustice done to the giants is underlined emphatically.

I am encouraged by Alverez's forthrightness in setting up this world to hope that the end of the series will involve some sort of justice for the giants, and a clear acknowledgement that they are not savages.   And I assume that the winged horse will be recognized as well as sentient beings deserving of freedom.  These two pertinent, social-justice questions made what could have been just an entertaining flying horse and plucky orphan boy making friends story into something that I was intellectually interested in reading, and so I look forward to the next book.


  1. Wow! This sounds quite thought-provoking! I love how the flying horse story becomes, as you say, so much more!

  2. Well this sounds incredibly cool! Just the title of this post alone was enough to get me in on this book.

    1. I hope if you do try it you enjoy it! There is mostly middle grade flying horses, so it isn't one I would have hand picked for you, though maybe flying horses are just right for you!


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