Prince On A White Horse by Tanith Lee

Prince On A White Horse book cover
Rating 7.6/10
Your mother was a beezle and your father smells of acorns

Like Graham Dunstan Martin’s Feydom duology, I discovered Prince on a White Horse when I was rather beyond the recommended age for it. Also like Feydom however, it was a book I really enjoyed, though for slightly different reasons, and reading it again enjoyed it no less.

Though sometimes packaged with Tanith Lee’s skewed fairy tale Castle of Dark, Prince on a White Horse is actually a fully stand alone novel taking place entirely in a bizarre other world of its own.

It begins as The Prince is riding across the waste on a white horse. He has no idea of who he is or where he is, indeed the only thing he can remember is an acorn. But a visit from the cross sorceress Jermael the Red sends him to the castle of bone, source of the worlds secrets, though unfortunately also home to a ferocious brass dragon and Jermael’s rival, issom the saffron.

What is odd about Prince on a White Horse, is that it’s a book of contrasts. The world the prince inhabits is one of the best sorts of fantastic worlds, A place of dark gothic landscapes, weird monsters and odd magic where you genuinely can’t predict what might be lurking around the next corner. Indeed, though by no means a stock fantasy world, it had very much the feeling of old school 1980’s dungeons and dragons or gamebook series like Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf. A world of monsters, treasures, weird magics and odd happenings, but one where adventures, knightly duels and mystical curses are simply common place. Despite its dark opening and the constant threat of being leapt upon by something toothy however, the short abrupt style, the odd turns of phrase and the extremely laconic characters (including the prince himself), make the book a dry, gently ironic comedy.

From Jameel’s foot stomping complaint because the prince isn’t responding correctly to her decidedly Arthurian dialogue, to a fight in which a knight is quite casual about being wounded badly (since he’s going to heal up soon), there is more than a little of Monty Python and the Holy Grail about the book. This is of course never a bad thing, and something adults would find amusing, even as children (and those with a fantastical bent), enjoy the parade of strange monsters and odd locations which range from Beezles, buzles and bozzles to skeletons and of course the above mentioned brass dragon.

While her style is entertaining, Lee doesn’t skimp on atmosphere, though I will admit there are points I wished we got a little more in terms of description, or at least took a little more time getting to one of the vivid locations before exploring, since while some fantastic places such as the castle of bone get more than an adequate introduction, others such as a set of cloud scraping mountains or a rocky, mermaid haunted sea shore do not. Then again, as a fairly short book (under five hours), likely intended for a child audience, Lee probably didn’t want to overwhelm with description or scene setting too much, though as this is unmistakably a journey story, a little more of the actual journeying (especially general descriptions of the lands journeyed through), might not have come amiss.

Another unique point about the book is its characters. The prince is a most reluctant hero, though Lee is able to keep his reluctance and fits of pique the right side of petulant for him to remain likable. He is also accompanied by several notable secondary characters, indeed to say the book is so short and characters get so little fanfare its remarkable how distinct Lee is able to make them, including Jermael the Red, an exasperated sorceress who stops the right side of abrasive to be likable, and her nice but dim brother the good natured knight Sir Jermant. Two characters I particularly appreciated were the Prince’s shape changing white horse, who provides most of the books more straight laced and casual humour, (especially with the repeated reminder that horses can’t talk, and the villain of the piece Issom the Saffron.

Issom indeed is one of those wonderful villains who can flip from discussing boiling oil baths and vats of venom in one second, to instantly playing the poor helpless damsel card and insisting that she “didn’t really mean it” as soon as things stop going her way, indeed the way Lee manages to subvert all the gothic knightly damsel tropes with Issom is quite hilarious, especially given that unlike at least some modern books aimed at a child audience, Lee is not afraid to at least threaten dire and pretty hideous things to her main characters.

One problem I did have is that of direction. While I love a good journey story, and journeys with mysterious goals are all the better, there were rather too many moments where it basically felt that the hand of the author was a little too obvious. From the prince “feeling” as if he needs to go somewhere, despite a lot of protestations that all he wants is a quiet life, to moments when external forces intervene to simply push matters in a single direction, such as when the Prince’s horse shows a mysterious talent for protective magic, or instantly knows what is the best course of action in a given situation, or on a couple of occasions have a suddenly helpful creature turn up at just the right moment. Fortunately, Lee is careful enough to subvert matters on several occasions, either by having the horse separated from the Prince, or the Prince simply flat out ignore the advice given to him. Indeed an on-running theme in the book is the fact that while the world has rules, the Prince (and the reader), don’t understand them, so the prince ends up succeeding usually by a combination of pugnacity, dumb luck and general confusion as to what is going on; plus a little swashbuckling. Indeed speaking of swordplay, it’s refreshing in an era of rigidly defined book categories when material written for “children” has a generally saccharine edge to it, to find a book which remembers the lessons of The Hobbit, Narnia and Peter Pan; that chopping off heads of nasty beasties is likely justified if said beasties are about to make a meal of you.

That being said there were unfortunately occasions in which the gloomy tone and threat of danger jarred a bit too much with the surreal humour and odd happenings, creating consistency gaps. For instance, while Jermael makes it clear that the prince is by no means the first to enter the Castle of Bone and that there’s a pretty high mortality rate, he is the first she gives some specific magical aid to. When he challenges her on this she just tells him he is “special”, which comes a little callous when considering the parade of previously dead champions whose bones still litter the waste.

Similarly, no less than three castles get destroyed in the course of the book, but only with one of them does Lee actually tell us that some of the innocent inhabitants got out alive, indeed it’s a bit ironic that in the second castle she has the villains appear to shake fists and claim vengeance on the prince, but neglects to mention whether the serving staff made it out or not.

Of course, I could be thinking too much about this sort of thing, but given that the tone Lee creates is silly and dark at the same time, it’s sometimes a little difficult to know how to take matters pertaining to loss of life.

The book’s climax was satisfying, if rather brief, indeed while the final secret and the reveal of the Princes identity might seem underwhelming to some, it fitted the style of the rest of the book most appropriately. Likewise, the evil force the Prince must confront is wonderfully eldritch; indeed almost Lovecraftian. I do wish that the confrontation had been a little bit longer and built up to slightly more, since as it was, the final battle felt more like another step on the journey rather than its supposed ending, though this is partly a consequence of Lee’s short chapters and rather brief style. I also wish Jermael hadn’t been put out of action just before battle commences, indeed while for the most part the book plays with the traditional trappings of knightly heroic fantasy exceptionally well, I did feel Lee was a trifle predictable in effectively having the main female character have to sit the battle out, doubly a shame to say that Jermael is so appealingly abrasive and off hand with her magic (I would’ve liked to see how she dealt with things that got in her way). Then again, I did appreciate that while Lee includes the possibility of romance, she remembers, however briefly to show that the two principal characters actually like each other aside from a bit of sparring and resentment, something which many more adult books with far more overt romance plots seem to forget.

The only minor issue I had with the end were the final few paragraphs detailing the fate of Issom. As an exceptional villain, it was disappointing that Issom essentially gets lost for the final battle, however what actually happens to her is detailed so briefly it is almost ambiguous, indeed I am not exactly sure whether Lee is suggesting the rather sexist idea that all Issom needs is a good man to take her in hand, implying that she is soon enough going to be up to her old tricks with a new partner to manipulate, or showing that a comparatively decent male character becomes a brute under stress, since the ending could have indicated any of these directions. Here the brevity of Lee’s prose was quite a hindrance, and to say Issom is such an awesomely hissable villain whom you absolutely love to hate, I’m sorry she didn’t get a better send off.

All in all Prince on a White Horse is a rollicking adventure. A classic journey with ironic writing, minimal characters and some quite hilariously surreal landscapes in a dark and weird world who’s vary darkness is taken almost casually by everyone.

In a way I’m a little sorry that Lee was not writing this book for adults, since had the prose been extended and a few of the plot holes filled in a little, it could’ve compared to discworld for strange humour and playing with fantasy tropes, though as its stands its likely the sort of book which children will love, and adults will enjoy for a brief interlude of oddity.

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