Rating: 3.75 stars
With a British mother and a hard as the ground Texas father, Preston Hawks finds himself at 10 years old scrambling to find some middle ground between his parents and a place to fit in, something that is not happening for him in Texas. Then Pres meets fifteen-year-old Konrad Schnell at the San Antonio Polo Club. Instantly smitten with both Konrad and the sport of polo, Pres finds himself spending every moment possible in the company of the older boy, learning how to play and idolizing Konrad. As the years progress, Pres’ hero worship turns into friendship and then into love. But being gay during the 70’s is perilous to their health, especially so in Texas. So the boys love for each other stays hidden, much to Pres’ consternation until they part when Pres is sent off to boarding school in England.
With Konrad playing professional polo and Pres in school, their relationship faces many obstacles, including the formidable presence of Preston’s father, a man who enforces his rules with his fists. Swearing to love each other forever, only Konrad seems aware that they face a tough road to be together, as Pres blindly pleads for them to be out together as a couple. Their divergent views start to drive a wedge between them and when a traumatic event occurs it threatens to separate them for good.
Pres knows he is a Fire Horse, born in the year 1966, and that he is either going to be incredibly unlucky or lucky in love. And even though it may take him years, Pres knows his passion and strength will see him through to the goal that has always been his destination, a happily ever after.
Fire Horse is an extremely well written book by Mickie B. Ashling that engenders strong emotions from the very beginning. This is a book you are either going to love or hate depending upon your reaction to the main character, the narrator of his story and your tolerance for the game of polo. I am divided over this book, but not in the way you might predict.
I love the sections on polo horses and the game of polo itself. I am a fan of the sport, luckily living in an area where polo is huge and games readily available to watch. Happily for me, Mickie B. Ashling did a wonderful job of researching the game and her descriptions of the riveting play, the athleticism of man and horse, are close to perfection. Here is an example:
Konrad treated his ponies like precious children. Later, I’d come to find out why. A polo player was only as good as his mount. The deep connection between rider and steed was never as apparent as it was in this fast and dangerous sport. They became extensions of each other, and a subtle press of knee or inadvertent pull on reins could mean the difference between making a goal and flubbing the entire match. The horses had to be as fearless as their riders, galloping headlong toward goal posts, while all around them players pushed and shoved them out of the way, screaming invectives, and doing everything in their power to prevent the opposing team from reaching the other side. Without the element of trust between horse and rider, there was no hope of excelling on the field.
“The only way you can connect with your pony is through respect.”
“What do you mean?”
“Love them with all your heart but always be their master.”
“I’m not sure I understand you, Kon.”
“Feed them when they’re hungry, soothe them when they hurt, make sure they’re always warm and dry at night, but when you’re out on the playing field, whip them if necessary. By feeling your strength and positive energy, they’ll respond with equal enthusiasm. If you show fear or weakness, they’ll get skittish and back off.”
“Do I have to do anything special to show them I’m master?”
“Love them above anything else.”
And most do feel that way and treat their ponies accordingly, as a partner. Which is a good thing for the horses considering the expense of a skilled animal and the price of a stable full of them, I find them to be treated far better than the typical racing Thoroughbred. Ashling captures the partnership and the special bond between rider and animal that starts from the first moment they lay eyes on each other:
Konrad whistled suddenly and we stopped. “Now, that is a beauty,” he said, walking toward a frisky young mare that pranced as he approached. She was dark gray with a snowy white mane and tail. Her oval eyes sparkled with intelligence, and she bobbed her head as Kon got closer, acknowledging his presence with a flick of her tail and a flutter of long lashes.
“She’s flirting with him,” I said, astounded.
“Es una coqueta, a teaser,” Miguel said.
“She’s a sweetheart,” Kon said, stroking her gently. “What’s her name?”
“Dulce,” Miguel said. “It means ‘sweet’.”
And so the dance between man and animal starts, and Ashling gets it exactly right. Unfortunately, I wish I could say I felt the same about Preston “Flea” Fawkes. our narrator and the main character.
As I said before, you are either going to love Preston or dislike him intensely. I ended up somewhere in the middle, finding myself mostly exasperated with his actions, tired by his self centeredness, and most ready to deliver, ala Cher in Moonstruck, the “snap out of it” slap across that well taken care of face. It doesn’t help that he is the narrator of his story. It might have given us a different perspective, and some distance from his constant musings if, for instance, let’s say the narrator had been Ned Temple, his best friend from Pres’ days at Eton. I felt that I needed to see him as others did because listening to his viewpoint for the entire book made me wonder why everyone else put up with him. Instead of a brooding, handsome bisexual extrovert, I found myself categorizing him as a self involved, overly impulsive, thoughtless boy who grew into a self centered, hedonistic albeit gorgeous polo player. From a gay boy to a man who beds everything in his path indiscriminately, I never saw him as a bisexual man because of his bed partners, perhaps because he doesn’t seem to like women. His two marriages and subsequent children both came from drunken binges and impulsive encounters. In fact, other than Ned and Konrad, no one really seems to like Pres at all. So why is the reader supposed to feel any different?
When the book opens up, it is 2011 and Preston Fawkes is forty-five years old and living in the United Kingdom. He has had a traumatic spill from his polo pony and is laying in a hospital bed. In Chapter 6, we move from the present to 1976 in San Antonio, Texas and meet 10 year old Preston just as his life is about to change forever. He enters the San Antonio Polo Club and finds the two passions that will haunt him the rest of his life, Konrad and polo. Both man and sport are intimately intwined in Preston’s mind and heart. Here is their meeting where Pres is speaking of Konrad:
The kids had dubbed him Big Foot because his size-fifteen riding boots had to be custom made by a specialty shop in Dallas. He was graceless on the ground but fluid and masterful on horseback. I’d met him the day he spied me losing my balance on the wooden practice pony and then tumbling headlong onto the dirt-packed floor. The sound of his throaty laugh had reverberated in the barn, and my first reaction had been to retaliate, but his size was so intimidating I didn’t think I stood a chance. Amazingly, Konrad stopped laughing as soon as he saw my flushed face and clenched fists. What he did instead was stick his big hands under my armpits and lift me back up on the pony as if I were weightless.
Who wouldn’t fall in love with someone like that? I got that totally. I just wish that was the Pres that continued through the story. I liked the characters of Konrad and Ned, among the few others we get to know. Ashling’s characterizations are fully complete human beings, they have their faults, their positive aspects of their personalities and just like the people around you, you either will connect with them or wish them speedily on their way. I think, however, that it is how you view Preston that will tell how you feel about this story of his life.
The plot of Fire Horse extends through a 35 year time period from the present back to 1976 which is a rather large timeframe. I am not sure that Ashling did the 70’s justice, but she did pull in the beginnings of AIDS as a mystery disease and the homophobic atmosphere of the times. I liked that aspect of the story but I am just not sure that two teenage boys would have taken that first rumblings of a gay disease as serious and used condoms. True, that was due to Konrad, a much more serious young man, still I had my misgivings.
There are some other sections of the story that had me puzzled as well. While I can’t name specifics without giving away plot spoilers, I found some glaring holes in the plot, especially late in the story that pulled me up in disbelief. That combined with the dramatic “aha” moment that occurs when the book is almost 90 percent complete, then a denouement that is less than satisfying, well, let’s just say that I expected more of a payout after 33 chapters and didn’t feel that I got it.
The title refers to the Chinese Astrological Guide. Pres was born in the year of the Fire Horse, 1966, and uses the Chinese Astrological description as a reference throughout his life. Here is one horoscope defining the Fire Horse:
THE FIRE HORSE 1906 AND 1966
The Fire Horse is animated and sociable. He has a wild side that leads him to a life on the edge. Fire Horses are generally either incredibly lucky or ridiculously unlucky. They love the excitement of action and the change it brings. The Fire element makes them passionate about their feelings and they always take a stand in a situation. Fire Horses are never on the fence about anything and have definitive opinions about the world. Their tempers can be overbearing
As someone born under the sign of the Horse, I can understand being fascinated to a degree by the spot on characteristics ( I won’t mention which specific Horse symbol I was born under), and enjoyed the fact that Mickie B. Ashling used the characteristics of the Chinese horoscope when creating Preston. I did not know that the Chinese had subcategories to each animal used. There are the Metal Horse (1930 and 1990) , the Water Horse (1942 and 2002), the Wood Horse (1954 and 2014), the Fire Horse (1906 and 1966), and the Earth Horse (1918 and 1978). I love it when a book sends me off to research new topics. Fire Horse did that for me and perhaps, if you aren’t familiar with polo, it will do that for you too. Look for some links for the Chinese Horoscope and Polo infomration at the end.
I really did like parts of this book, and parts of the character of Preston as well. I will leave you with one of my favorite passages from Fire Horse. It concerns polo, of course:
I was too young to handle the horses, but I watched the grooms with great interest. The animals were switched after each chukker to give them a chance to rest. Some ponies dealt with the grueling pace better than others, but the upshot was that a player was only as good as his mount. I finally understood what Kon meant when he’d rhapsodized about their worth. The difference between a seasoned pony and one that was still learning the ropes was obvious, even to my untrained eyes. The older animals only showed signs of fatigue when the riders dismounted. The babies had a look of sheer terror in their eyes. They had to be rubbed and talked down from their hyperactive state in time for the next round. Each chukker was seven minutes long, with only a three-minute break in between. A polo match usually lasted an hour and a half and was divided into six chukkers with a five-minute halftime. There was hardly a chance for the horses to recoup. Having three or four ponies made absolute sense when one considered the wear and tear on the animals’ nerves, let alone their bodies.
The wooden mallets were swung with forceful strokes on either side of them, and it wasn’t out of the norm to miss a swing and hit a pony inadvertently. They had to deal with that possibility, along with the constant need to keep up their speed as competitive riders urged them on unmercifully. It was no wonder the ponies were skittish and temperamental in the beginning. I was a wreck myself, filled with anxiety about my lack of skill, but blooming with hope for a future as a professional polo player. I was captivated by the sport and the men who played it.
I remain captivated by this sport, the man and the horses that play it. I remain captivated by aspects of Fire Horse as well. I really wavered between a 4 star and 3.75 star rating but ultimately it was Pres that drove the rating downward for me. Pick this book up and decide for yourself.
Cover art by Anne Cain. This cover is just spectacular. Absolutely one of the Best Covers of 2013. I would love to own the original.
Links: Chinese Fire Horse Horoscope, also Chinese Horoscopes, the Horse
Polo Links: Maryland Polo Club, and The Polo Center, the link for all things polo in Maryland, Or find the nearest Polo match near you and watch a game, truly a remarkable game.