The Winter Horses review

Book: The Winter Horses

Author: Phillip Kerr

I love to read historical fiction, especially that based around WWII but I find that a lot of it tends to be the same, either based around Germany or the Holocaust, so it thrills me when I can find something a little different. The Winter Horses is based in Ukraine, which was a nice change, to get to see the experience of war from a Ukrainian character’s perspective rather than a German one. Here is the synopsis for this book:

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.

I did like this book, albeit probably not as much as I should have done, considering that it was based around horses which are some of my favourite books to read and WWII which is another topic I enjoy reading about. I found this in the Teen section of my local Waterstones and I thought the writing was a little clunky and more suited to younger readers than me, which kind of put me off the book a little. I also found that the dialogue was a little dull. The story was very slow to get moving, it is only after Kalinka goes to Max’s cottage to get help, that it finally picks up the pace a little, and considering that it is only 280 pages it took me much longer to read than it really should have because it took me a while to actually get into the story.

I didn’t find that I formed a strong attachment to the main character Kalinka. She is a young Jewish girl who has lost her entire family thanks to the Holocaust and the lack of emotion that she showed whenever tradgedy seemed to happen made it really hard for me to empathise with her. The way she spoke made me think she was much younger than she was and it was very hard for me to imagine her at her actual age throughout the book, I kept thinking she was about 11 or 12. Besides she seemed to me to be kind of a Mary-sueish character, a child prodigy, able to connect with these rare wild horses, good at painting, there basically seemed to be nothing she couldn’t do, no real flaw she had which I really disliked. It makes it very hard to root for a character when you don’t like them all that much.

I liked learning about the Przewalski’s horses, and I have no doubt that they are as clever as portrayed in the book, and I also researched a little bit about the real Askaniya Nova as I was curious and the history was basically the same as it said in the book, so good job on historical accuracy there but I didn’t like the way they were so anthropomorphised in this book, and I highly doubt that real wild horses would allow a human to get as close as they allow Kalinka much less ride one the way she does.
I did like the horses and that he gave them a sease of personality but I thought the level that they were anthropomorphised was a little ridiculous. The same goes with the dog, I loved Taras but I felt he was given too many human-like qualities and I also thought the way the story ended for him was a little unnecessary. Also given how clever Kalinka was supposed to be, it seemed unbelievable that she didn’t check his wounds after the fight with the Lynx.

I also loved Max, but felt he was a little naive at time and too trusting of the Germans, just because he had known a nice German, he expected the SS to be nice too. Still I did like him, he was a kind old man and to be honest, given the way his story ended I’d say he’s probably the real hero of the story and not Kalinka. His love for the horses was evident and he took in Kalinka despite knowing the risk having her posed to his life and I just felt like in the end he came across as more heroic.

The SS didn’t really come across as at all realistic. They seemed to sound more like ordinary German soldiers than the SS, who were extremely loyal to Hitler and were more of a cult, and Captain Grenzmann did not come off anywhere near intimidating enough. I also find it hard to believe that they would have been thrown off track as easily as they were, and that Kalinka managed to get rid of them so quickly, when they were gone I was kind of left with a feeling of “Oh is that it?”. He did however capture the racist aspect of the Nazis well and I really liked the juxtaposition of Kalinka as a Jew with the ponies, as both were considered inferior races by the Nazis. I also liked the contrast between Captain Grenzmann and Captain Stammer, a German captain who helps Kalinka later in the story, that was nice, it would have been even better if Captain Grenzmann had been more intimidating.

There were many plot holes in this, everything that Kalinka manages to do with the horses would never actually be able to happen in real life, but since it is a story a certain degree of fantasy is fine, but the horses seem to have incredible abilities and whilst I don’t doubt how smart these horses are it is doubtful they are as smart as Kerr portrays them to be. However despite the unbelievability of it, I did like Kalinka’s relationship with the horses. I also thought that the part where she covered them all in silver paint was a little unbelievable because she would have needed a huge pot to do as much as Kerr says she did and it sounded like she only had a small jar. You would also never be able to attach a chariot to wild horses, and given how much paint she must have had to use to cover them, it is doubtful she could have washed it off with snow.

The part where the other ponies on the reserve were killed was really sad because that actually did happen to the ponies at Askaniya Nova during in World War Two, they were almost wiped out, so that did leave an emotional impact and I did like the history in this book, it seemed like Kerr had done his research well but there were definitely moments where he just dumped large amounts of information in there.

It’s a nice enough book, and it was good to read a different WWII story, but I have to say that this book is probably better for younger readers, as the simplistic writing style and characters plus the rather unbelievable story didn’t make for particularly good reading for me. Aside from a few graphic parts, it’s probably good for readers aged 9-12, and they would probably find it more enjoyable than me as it seemed to be written in a way suited for a younger audience.

My rating: 3/5

The next book I will be reviewing is Panic, by Lauren Oliver.