The Winter Horses
by Philip Kerr
Publisher: Knopf Books
Page Count: 288
Release Date: March 25, 2014
How got: personal library; bought from Amazon
First attention getter: time era
From New York Times bestselling author Philip Kerr comes a breathtaking journey of survival by one girl and two horses in the dark days of WWII.
It will soon be another cold winter in the Ukraine. But it's 1941, and things are different this year. Max, the devoted caretaker of an animal preserve, must learn to live with the Nazis who have overtaken this precious land. He must also learn to keep secrets-for there is a girl, Kalinka, who is hiding in the park.
Kalinka has lost her home, her family, her belongings-everything but her life. Still, she has gained one small, precious gift: a relationship with the rare wild and wily Przewalski's horses that wander the preserve. Aside from Max, these endangered animals are her only friends-until a Nazi campaign of extermination nearly wipes them out for good.
Now Kalinka must set out on a treacherous journey across the frozen Ukrainian forest to save the only two surviving horses-and herself.
This sensitive, inspiring tale captures the power of sacrifice and the endurance of the human spirit.
Star Rating - 3.5
This book turned into something unexpected for me. Not necessarily a bad thing as the turns were interesting in their own right, but my expectations going in and how the book started made me not appreciate them as much as another reader might.
I went into the book expecting an engaging survival story against the elements (Ukraine in winter, enough said!!), escape from the Nazis, and a helping hand from fellow humans. And I got all those. Kalinka was a smart girl who found herself swept up into the tragic events of the Holocaust and WWII. Striking out on her own across Nazi-occupied Ukraine, she finds help from some unexpected quarters. I found her journey through the many parts of this devastated land suspenseful and illuminating for her character.
I also liked the secondary characters; they were well-fleshed out and enthralling. Of course, Max shines as Kalinka’s savior. A sweet older man who has made it his life’s work to protect and work with the animals on his preserve, he stands as a bright light against the darkness of persecution and despair. I even liked the Nazi Captain Grenzmann. He had a certain charm about him, even though he also embodied all that was evil about the Nazis. He actually illustrated well how scary the Nazis could be: outwardly helpful and charming but willing to put a bullet in your head at the slightest cause on the inside.
The main animal characters of Temujin, Borte, and Taras were also given pretty strong personalities, to the degree that they could hold “conversations” with Kalinka and each other. They had distinct personality traits like stubbornness, protectiveness, and a strong will.
This is actually where the book started to go in a different direction than I expected. It never comes out the animals are having actual conversations with Kalinka; it’s more like an intuitive knowing what the other is trying to get across and what-not. Yet, it’s enough that the book slides into historical fantasy rather than a survival/WWII story. Those elements are still there, but the fantasy elements start to take over, with more and more of these “conversations” happening to the point that they are most of the exchanges we see.
There’s also the whole tomb thing as the finale of the book. That is pretty much ENTIRELY fantasy with visions, dream chats, and help from celestial bodies. Maybe the animal conversations were building up to this so it wouldn’t completely feel out of step with the book, but I was still jarred. I was looking for more of a realistic showdown/resolution with the chasing Nazis rather than this fantastical stuff. Left me a bit disappointed and feeling cheated.
So not a bad book but not what I was expecting. I loved the characters, even the horses and dog, as well as the WWII/survival elements. The story itself was suspenseful and kept me engaged. But the heavy presence and use of fantasy elements drove the book into unexpected directions and left me jarred. They didn’t work for me. Maybe another reader would appreciate them and like them better. I don’t know.