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The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

Review

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

Emmaline lives in a colorless world. The English countryside in winter is a bleak place at any time, but especially during the dark days of World War II. To make matters worse, Emmaline suffers from tuberculosis, as do the other children at Briar Hill Hospital. But Emmaline has a secret that brings warmth and brightness to her life: she alone can see the horses in the mirrors of Briar Hill. The beautiful winged horses bring joy to Emmalineʼs monotonous life, but they exist only in the world of the mirrors - - - until one appears in the garden.

"THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL intertwines truth and fantasy....Shepherd effortlessly weaves together fact and fantasy in this poignant novel."

A secret message and a mysterious threat lead Emmaline to care for Foxfire, an injured horse from the mirrors who has somehow crossed over into this world. Foxfire is being pursued by the Black Horse, a menacing inversion of the mirror horses. To protect her new friend, Emmaline must build a shield of color using hues from the entire color spectrum. But colors are scarce at Briar Hill, and finding objects bright enough to repel the Black Horse is a challenge. Using her friend Annaʼs precious colored pencils as a guide, Emmaline works her way through the colors, steadily building a rainbow shield to hide Foxfire. A kind and patient teenager, Anna is the oldest patient at Briar Hill and the closest thing Emmaline has to a mother or older sister. But Annaʼs tuberculosis, the dreaded disease Emmaline calls the “stillwaters,” is severe. Time is the enemy; Annaʼs health is failing fast, and the shield must be completed before the full moon, when Foxfire will be more visible to the Black Horse. Feeling powerless in what seems to be a hopeless situation, Emmaline must find her inner strength to save those she loves most and to drive away the darkness of illness and war.

A sense of urgency and impending disaster looms throughout the novel. Annaʼs tuberculosis grows steadily worse and threatens to steal away Emmalineʼs closest friend. Emmaline races against time to build the color shield before the full moon to protect Foxfire from the Black Horse. Finally, the effects of the war are never far away, from the mundane - canned ham and rotting onions for dinner - to the horrific. The children at Briar Hill have been sent away from their families to prevent the spread of their disease and to protect them from the constant bombing of British cities. Parents are conspicuously absent from the story, and it seems as though anyoneʼs family could be gone. Author Megan Shepherd is a masterful storyteller. The isolation of each character is palpable, as is their clumsy but strong desire to connect with one another in the face of unfathomable darkness.

In a world turned upside down by war, normal life shifts and the unthinkable becomes reality. THE SECRET HORSES OF BRIAR HILL intertwines truth and fantasy in a similar way. Does Emmaline really see the horses, or are they in her imagination? Shepherd effortlessly weaves together fact and fantasy in this poignant novel. Several times Emmaline mistakes the Black Horse for a German plane ready to bomb the hospital. The Black Horse looms in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to strike. He serves as a metaphor for both the war and Emmalineʼs illness, two ever-present threats that hang overhead throughout the novel. But the task of protecting Foxfire pulls Emmaline out of her isolation and gives her a way to fight back against the forces of evil in her world.

Reviewed by Rebecca Hawkins on November 30, 2016

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill
by Megan Shepherd

  • Publication Date: October 11, 2016
  • Genres: Children's 10+, Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 1101939753
  • ISBN-13: 9781101939758