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Dark Horses


Dark Horses

From debut novelist Susan Mihalic comes DARK HORSES, a gripping and unflinching story of a teenage girl’s determined and courageous fight to reclaim her life from the man who controls her.

Roan Montgomery is a fourth-generation (future) Olympic equestrian. Although she is only 15 and should be visiting the mall with friends, sipping iced lattes and texting boys, her life exists strictly inside the riding arena and stables where she has spent years riding, mucking and grooming the best horses around. Naturally talented, determined and unafraid of hard work, Roan is every coach’s dream, and she has the medals and trophies to confirm it. Olympic legend Monty Montgomery is her coach, father and trainer all wrapped into one, and he demands strict obedience in every aspect of her life --- including their warped relationship, which extends far beyond the realms of dressage and parenthood. Mont wants Roan all to himself in every sense of the term, and under his watchful, exacting gaze, she feels powerless and controlled.

When we meet Roan, she is at the height of her young career as a rider, with nothing but success ahead of her. She and her father clearly share a love of horses, and descriptions of the preparation and training for events and competitions will put you right alongside them. However, Mihalic writes their early interactions with a “just can’t put your finger on it” edge; Mont is a tad too watchful, a bit too controlling. Throughout the first chapter, we watch as Roan struggles to treat her own bladder infection in secret, indicating that something is not quite right in her tightly scheduled, sheltered world. At the end of the first chapter, Mihalic drops the bombshell that readers have been trying to avoid: Mont has been sexually abusing his daughter for years, and no one --- not their stable hands, their fans or the reporters --- knows.

"With gorgeous descriptions of the bonds between animals and humans and searing observations on abuse, courage and resilience, this powerhouse of a novel will sweep you off your feet and leave you raw."

Roan has turned compartmentalization into a lifestyle, separating her father’s dark hold over her from his stellar coaching and managing to succeed despite all of it. And why should she do anything else? Mont has been abusing her since she was six years old, but he also has been the driving force behind her passion and success as a rider. And unfortunately for Roan, he is the more stable of her parents, with her mother vacillating between turning a blind eye to the abuse and blaming her for it by accusing her of choosing him over everyone else. Simply put, Roan doesn’t stand a chance of breaking out of Mont’s hold --- until she meets Will Howard.

High school is difficult even for a champion rider, if not more so, and the added attention puts Roan under intense scrutiny and teasing. When she stands up to her longtime bully, burnout and general bad kid Will backs her up. He has noticed the spark of fight in her and is immediately interested in this quiet, brilliant, successful girl who somehow can hold her own even in the world of teenage bullying. As Will carefully pursues Roan, she begins to wonder what a real relationship --- with no power hierarchy, violence or control --- would feel like, and whether or not she can even adapt to something so breathtakingly unfamiliar after years of trauma.

As Will and Roan grow close, Mont’s hold on Roan tightens. Every interaction is thick with tension and nuance, and in evocative, propulsive prose, Mihalic shows readers exactly what psychological control and abuse look like, and how drastically trauma can warp one’s sense of self. Mont is calculating and cruel, and he wields power over Roan masterfully, gaslighting and manipulating her until every punishment feels earned, deserved and even craved. In one particularly telling scene, Mont separates Roan from her beloved horse, the one with whom she dreams of winning medals, and remarks, “How much do you want him back? Enough to stop challenging me? Figure out what you want, darlin’. It’s your choice.” Mont is a perfect monster, a man so narcissistic and focused on perfection that his abuse of Roan feels almost inevitable. She is not his daughter --- she is an extension of legendary, infallible him --- and nothing is more attractive to him than that.

I could write for days about Mihalic’s expert portrayal of Mont, but the true star of DARK HORSES is Roan. She is talented and successful, and it would be so easy for her story to feel stereotypical. But her narrative is complicated and sticky, shocking and disturbing, yet full of respect for her and all she has endured. Mihalic’s handling of Roan’s conflicted emotions for her father --- fear and admiration coupled with her own sexual awakening --- is such well-written taboo that it feels almost icky to praise, yet I can do nothing but marvel at her ability to toe the line between discomfort and hypnotization. Just when you are ready to throw the book across the room, we are reminded that Roan is a young girl in an unimaginable position, and you must finish her story to honor her. This unforgettable protagonist knows she is trapped, but she continues to hope that she can control the situation and navigate her father’s abuse if only she remains perfect and focused.

It should go without saying that DARK HORSES is a difficult, painful novel to read, but it is not one that you should ignore if you can stomach it. It is a much-needed addition to the world of stories about victims escaping their abusers, and much like MY ABSOLUTE DARLING, it is as full of power and determination as it is pain. With gorgeous descriptions of the bonds between animals and humans and searing observations on abuse, courage and resilience, this powerhouse of a novel will sweep you off your feet and leave you raw.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 19, 2021

Dark Horses
by Susan Mihalic

  • Publication Date: October 12, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
  • ISBN-10: 1982133856
  • ISBN-13: 9781982133856