The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd, Delacorte Books for Young Readers (October 11, 2016). ISBN: 9781101939758. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Anyone unfamiliar with the sub-genre of magical realism will understand what it typifies after reading this book. When readers first meet Emmaline, her history is a bit cloudy, to herself and the reader. In fact, it won’t be until very close to the end before that’s sorted out. No matter, for a lot takes place on the journey. She has what she calls the stillwaters (we know it as tuberculosis). She’s one of numerous children in varying stages of the disease in a former mansion away from populated areas because of the illness, but also because it’s during World War II and the Germans have been bombing England mercilessly.
Emmaline is closest to Anna, the sickest child there. The older girl may be gravely ill, but can still give love and nurture to Em. Even so, when Em begins seeing winged horses in the mirrors, she can’t bring herself to tell Anna, at least at first. When she sneaks into an abandoned garden, a place strictly off limits, she discovers one of the winged horses with a broken wing has entered our world. Em soon learns that the horse, named Foxfire, is being hunted by a black winged horse from beyond the mirrors and she must do everything she can to protect the injured animal.
Doing so involves risking her own fragile health, disobedience and struggling to decide who she can trust. Managing those challenges makes for an absorbing, albeit somewhat dark read. Despite the darkness, many younger teens will find this book almost impossible to put down. The blend of mystery, magic and suspense will draw them in and keep them reading.