April 30, 2020
(+++) HORSING AROUND
Soul Riders 1: Jorvik Calling. By Helena Dahlgren. Translated from Swedish by Agnes Broomé. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
All the usual ingredients and one not-so-usual one: that is the formula for the Soul Riders series for preteen-to-midteen girls – which is based on the “Star Stable” online adventure game. The connection to the Web is not the unusual element here: interactions between Internet activities and printed books are increasingly frequent and common. It is the equine element that gives a slightly out-of-the-ordinary tinge to what is otherwise a straightforward, pleasantly formulaic story of girls bonding, learning about themselves, developing camaraderie, and, not incidentally, taking on grand forces of evil by riding forth as avatars of good. Literally riding forth, in this case – that is the horsiness of Helena Dahlgren’s plot.
Actually, the plot is nothing that will be unfamiliar to readers in the target age group, and that is part of the point: Soul Riders is written and paced as comfortable fantasy, not too scary or intense, not at all difficult to understand and follow, and not in any way blurring the distinction between good and evil. The central character here is 15-year-old Lisa, whose mother died tragically in a riding accident and who has therefore buried her former love of horses beneath layers of grief and general unhappiness. Seeking a new start, Lisa’s now-single father, Carl, takes a job (about which, unsurprisingly, there is some mystery) on an island called Jorvik. An unnecessary Prologue ensures that young readers know before the story even starts that Jorvik is an extremely important focal point for the eternal battle between good and evil. And obviously Lisa, willingly or not, is going to become involved in the struggle.
That means Lisa has to go on the usual journey of self-discovery. This one starts by ferry – the only way to reach Jorvik – and continues as Lisa begins to adjust to life on Jorvik by making friends and going to her new school. It turns out, very soon, that pretty much everything and everyone on Jorvik has something to do with horses: “Seriously, Lisa, I’m not even sure it’s legal to move to Jorvik if you don’t like horses,” one girl explains, in a statement that deserves to be taken at face value. What is important here is how closely the horses are bound to their riders, and vice versa. Each girl has a mount whose personality and appearance are very close to the girl’s own. That applies not only to the nice girls to whom Lisa feels immediately attracted – Alex, Anne, and Linda – but also to the inevitable dastardly characters who, of course, simply exude darkness and malice and, you know, evil. Would that real life could always be so simple! But the whole point of Soul Riders is to give readers something that is very definitely not real life: this is a world where you find your friends and hold fast to them, where your enemies are clear even when their exact motivations are not, and where the crucial elements of the good-vs.-evil battle are humans bonded to horses in a kind of figurative centaur relationship (yes, the girls and their mounts are so close that they almost seem to be compound creatures).
To become part of the Jorvik magic and Jorvik world, Lisa must, of course, overcome her terrible memories of her mother’s death – a topic she cannot at first even bring up to herself, and one she is later unable to bring up to her newfound friends. Getting past this awful event requires Lisa to find her equine soulmate, and of course one is available nearby on Jorvik – and has unusual physical characteristics of which Lisa has dreamed since she was a little girl.
Dahlgren gives slight hints, very early on, of what this horse will turn out to be named: Lisa finds herself drawn intensely to the “paling morning sky” as she arrives on Jorvik, and in particular notices a “giant star-shaped constellation” in which “the stars traced the outline of a large, four-pointed star.” There is no such constellation, Lisa is sure, but nevertheless, there it is. And, of course, her father cannot see it. And it later turns out that Lisa’s newfound friends and allies saw something on the same morning that Lisa did – but each saw a different something: “a big crescent moon,” a lightning bolt, and “a sun.” And then it turns out, courtesy of nothing less than a Google search, that “the sun, the star, the moon, and the lightning bolt are ancient symbols often associated with the legend of the four Soul Riders.” And there we have the summation of the plot of this first book in what clearly has the potential to be an extended series.
Oh, and as for that suitable mount for Lisa: well, there just happens to be a horse at the local stable named – what else? – Starshine. And it is love, or bonding, or adventure-in-the-making, at first sight. And will undoubtedly continue in the same vein for plenty of Soul Riders books to come.