Judith Tarr‘s first historical fantasy novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her YA time-travel science fiction/fantasy/historical novel, Living in Threes, appeared as an ebook from Book View Café in 2012, and is now in print. Her new novel, a space opera (with horses, of course), will be published by Book View Cafe in 2015; a prequel, “Fool’s Errand,” appeared in Analog in January/February 2015. She’s currently running a Kickstarter for a series of novellas about horses and magic in contemporary Arizona. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, two dogs, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.
by Judith Tarr
When you think about it, horses are as integral to fantasy as magic or invented worlds. As long as fantasy tends to be set in pre-mechanical-transport cultures, there has to be some means of getting people and goods from place to place. And horses, or horselike beings, are just the thing. They’re the transport, the war machines, and, often, the magical companions.
Now that we’ve moved on to a different way of getting around, people in general are much less familiar with the actual animal than they used to be. It makes for some interesting tropes and tics. (I swear, I want a drinking game. Every time somebody yells “Hyah!” to make a horse go, chug the whole bottle. That’s not what you do. Really. OK? OK. Seriously.) (Horses aren’t dogs, either. They don’t make a lot of noise. And they can’t binge-eat. It kills them. Got that, too? Good. I mean it.) But still, the horses are there in the stories we write and read. They’re part of the landscape.
There are a fair number of horse people in fantasy and science fiction-we used to joke about forming the SFWA Cavalry, led by General McCaffrey and packed with horse-savvy writers, editors, and fans. We’re always up for helping out our fellow writers who either didn’t inherit the horse-crazy gene, or haven’t had the opportunity to get to know horses well enough to write about them knowledgeably. I even run Horse Camp for Writers, a.k.a. Camp Lipizzan), which teaches by immersion.
What we teach, mostly, is that, like many other obsessions and passionate addictions, horses, and the people who love them, inhabit a world of their own. They have their own vocabulary, their own legends and lore, and their own insider jokes and peeves and home truths. They also recognize that those big animals with the minimally evolved digestive systems and the weirdly fragile bodies are individuals. Sentients. And that’s key.
It’s also a way of life. Even if you only visit a horse farm once in a blue moon, or read about horses or watch movies or follow equestrian sports, they’re still a consuming passion. If you actually come into regular contact with them, it tends to define your existence. Owning one is hard core. Owning a farm is seriously going all the way.
So here I am, on five acres of sand and cactus in the Great American Southwest, with (currently) eight odd-toed ungulates of the subspecies Equus ferus caballus.
I didn’t plan it that way. I had one horse, I realized that apartment rent was running higher than actually owning a house and didn’t build equity, the horse was female and about to foal, so, farm rather than suburbia-with-yard. With enough space that I could get another horse to ride while she was busy with the kid. And then another, because, you know, herd animals. And that one had a foal, too, because rare breed needs to keep its numbers up. Foal was male and of sufficient quality to stay a stallion, which meant even more foals. And it went from there.
Mostly, pre-farm, I wrote historicals or medievalist fantasy, with horses in the books, of course, but not usually as protagonists. Once I had the farm, I could be more knowledgeable about the finer points of care and feeding that riders and boarding-barn horse owners tend to be oblivious to. And that helped with the writing in subtle ways. Little details; bits of knowledge and understanding that came from being there first thing in the morning and late at night, and seeing how horses act when they’re literally at home.
What I didn’t do, partly by inclination and partly because of market forces, was write outside of the medievalist fantasy box. Until Publisherdammerung in 2008 changed the world, for me at least, and kicked me out of the box. Got me thinking in different ways. Changed how I related to the genre. While, at the same time, forcing my life on the farm to evolve in ways I would not have expected.
Hence, the current work in progress, which is a departure for me. It’s contemporary. It’s based in the kind of reality I wake up to every morning, even to some of the weirder parts. It’s a chance to have fun, but it’s also a challenge, because hey, new box.
I’m crowdfunding it through December 21st because the horses like to eat, and because it looks like being one of those weird interstitial projects that gives publishers’ marketing departments indigestion. The usual barn suspects want to be in it, and of course will be.
That’s not the only new box I’ve happened into, either. I’ve always seen science fiction as a subset of the very broad genre and concept that is fantasy. When I was challenged to write about Ponies in Space, I had a chance to push to the other end of the spectrum.
Hard science fiction. Set in space, with a scientific problem and a technological solution. Which sold to Analog and is out in the latest issue, because yep, hard SF. With horses. On a space ship.
Sure, they belong out there. Given a suitable planet and some helpful modifications (and efficient and economical means to transport them), horses can make as much sense in an interstellar future as in a preindustrial past. Or, for that matter, a present in which they’ve evolved from transportation into companions and fellow sentients.
As I said, it’s a way of life. It’s defined quite a few human cultures over the past few thousand years. I have a feeling it will continue to do that for at least a few hundred more.
Visit Judith’s Horses of the Moon Kickstarter.