Friday, 30 October 2020

The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

For two hundred years, on a small island just outside Oxford, the Kendrick family have been making exquisite dolls. As each is finished a hex is placed on it, giving it an emotion, from terror to bliss, which can be felt by anyone who touches the doll. It's a close-knit family business, with few outsiders allowed to join (and they are usually marrying into the family) The placing of the hex is a closely guarded secret even within the family, one which, although the company was founded by women, is now guarded by the men of the family; women may design and build houses and sets for the dolls but only men are 'sorcerers' allowed to fix emotions in the dolls.

Into this tight community comes a young man, Larkin, claiming to be a descendant of one of the founding sisters. He too is a maker of dolls, and now wants to claim a rightful place in the family business. Unusually for the Kendrick family, he's accepted on trust and given a position in the company, though no access to the vital magic that makes a Kendrick doll unique. His presence soon causes stirrings in the quiet lives of the Kendricks' world. Persephone Kendrick believes the dolls she creates are as beautiful as any made by the men, but as a woman she's not allowed to make 'Kendrick's' dolls but is relegated to the shop. Through Larkin she sees a way out of her stifling circumstances; a chance of a life where she can follow her ambition to create dolls of her own. 

Meanwhile a valuable irreplaceable doll is stolen, and only a family member with a knowledge of their magic could have executed the theft. There are various suspects, including Persephone's father, but most of the extended family seem happy to blame the fabled 'thief on the winged horse' - a magical character deemed responsible for much of the good - and ill - fortune of the Kendricks. 

I loved this book, from its magical elements to its all-too-real family rivalry and jealousy. Two elements lie at its heart - the daring theft, and the upheaval created by Larkin. At first he seems to slide smoothly into the family's way of things, but soon it's apparent that his arrival has caused a ripple-effect bringing long-held discontents to life.

With its mix of family secrets, betrayals and love, the tracking down of whoever committed the theft, of  Persephone's determination to challenge the status quo and follow her dream, there's something for almost everyone. This isn't 'fantasy' as such; the influence of 'magic' is slight, and for me the appeal was in its characters and their loves and deceits. The characters are well-drawn and realistically brought to life (more so then even a Kendricks' doll), while underpinning their action and the story is a knowledge of human frailties and desires.


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