There’s a lot to be said about writing books where a lot of the main characters are horses. Horses are noble, steadfast and honest. A horse generally has a definable character arc and isn’t going to complicate any subplots. And, best of all, if your main character has a dramatic monologue to give, a horse isn’t going to even dream of interrupting her.
Another nice thing about horses is that there isn’t a politically correct lobby connected with how you use them in fiction. If you want to convey that your horse is old and tired, you can say that the horse is a sway-backed old gray nag. Everyone will know what you’re talking about, and nobody will complain very much. Readers expect that a sprightly young Appaloosa colt will behave in ways that are different from how a black Thoroughbred with a white blaze will act, which is not the same thing as a Shetland pony. For fictional horses, appearances are closely tied to character in ways that would raise hackles if you tried it on people. If you have a horse at the center of your story that’s a young, strong stallion with a snowy mane and a sun-bright coat, you’ve said almost everything you need to say about the horse --- and you’ve said a lot about his rider, too.
Aaron Gwyn knows his horses. Horses are a fine thing to know a lot about, and there is an undeniable skill in working with horses, caring for them and being a good rider. WYNNE’S WAR is told from the perspective of a young Ranger corporal who is highly skilled in working with horses, and whose talents are put to use in a forward base in Afghanistan, where he trains horses for a shadowy covert Special Forces team led by a charismatic and maybe slightly evil captain.
"When WYNNE’S WAR finally takes to the frontier and the troops face armed hostiles, it works as a taut adventure story with a Western motif."
There may be people in this country who are immune to the lure of a well-told modern-day war story featuring American troops mounted on horses facing savage Afghan tribes in the wilderness. I am not one of them. When WYNNE’S WAR finally takes to the frontier and the troops face armed hostiles, it works as a taut adventure story with a Western motif. Gwyn keeps his Special Forces soldiers under attack from all directions, and maintains a pace as fast as the mysterious Captain Wynne’s stallion.
However, there are three significant problems with the novel that keep it from being much more than an entertaining adventure story. The first is the main character, Corporal Elijah Russell, who is (like a horse, you understand) noble, steadfast and honest. But he has had a hard life, is forever dwelling on his family issues, and is kind of a sad sack at times. This gives him the fine air of postmodern detachment you’d expect from the hero in a literary novel, but it’s more than a little out of place here.
The second problem is that Corporal Russell is almost the only interesting character in the bunch. Gwyn has very little time for his supporting characters, and almost no time at all for Russell’s love interest. One of the Special Forces soldiers is nicknamed Ox, and he does about what you would expect a guy named Ox to do in a novel like this, which is not that much. Even less attention is paid to the Afghans, whether they are on the American side as interpreters or on the Taliban side as opponents. WYNNE’S WAR does so many things so well that it’s a real letdown to see the character development bungled like this.
The third problem has to do with the actual mission of the Special Forces --- not so much with what they are doing but with how they are doing it. The main plot twist is something that should have been covered in the initial mission briefing. Obviously, from a novelist’s perspective, you don’t want to reveal the plot twist quite so early, but there’s no real reason from a military perspective not to do so. And, without giving too much away, the logistics for this particular mission are all kind of fouled up. (I leave the question of whether this was done in order to provide verisimilitude with regard to actual military planning to the experts.)
WYNNE’S WAR has nice atmospherics, a strong moral conflict and a rattling good story, which by itself should recommend it to anyone who is looking for a modern-day adventure story on horseback. But the author seems to be shooting for much more than that and falls short.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on May 30, 2014