I really enjoyed this. If you follow my blog, you will know I didn't like the first two volumes of this series, The One Dollar Horse and Race the Wind, and I wasn't expecting to like Fire Storm. In the previous volumes, I've had issues with unlikely plot lines and what seemed to me dodgy characterisation. I will just say that it is of course crashingly unlikely that someone will achieve the Triple Crown before they're 18, which is the whole point of this trilogy, but let's just leave that aside. The pony book is all about wish fulfilment, and this trilogy achieves that. After all, one of the earliest precursors of the genre, Velvet Brown, did win the Grand National. And she wasn't even 17.
Fire Storm opens with heroine Casey Blue being unable to ride Storm, who is still recuperating from his Kentucky experiences. She's riding a mare she's been loaned, Lady Roxanne. The mare doesn't like Casey, or anyone very much at all. She'll jump a course one day, and dump Casey the next. Casey's instructor, the eccentric but switched on Mrs Smith, starts Casey on the road to understanding the mare, but it's uber-instructor Kyle West who tosses out a couple of nuggets to Casey which she thinks really do the trick. And Kyle is several things Mrs Smith isn't: young, male, and devastatingly attractive.
I felt for poor Mrs Smith, whose illness it turns out is terminal (though she survives until the end of the book), and who suffers more when Casey has a strop and storms off to be trained by Kyle. Casey does, of course, eventually get to Burghley, the third event she needs to win in order to win the Triple Crown, having already got Badminton and Kentucky under her belt.
Anna, villainess of the first book, makes a reappearance, but she's changed - no cardboard villains here. I like the way she and Casey dodge around each other; neither quite sure of what the other really thinks. The author's moved beyond the obvious characterisation that dogged her other books, and has created a story which hangs together brilliantly. There was one brief occasion when I thought we were going to veer off into sub Dick Francis shenanigans, but the crisis was averted. The tension in this book comes from the drama that surrounds Casey naturally: her relationship with Mrs Smith, her attraction to Kyle when she's still in love with boyfriend of the first two books, Peter, and her struggle to form a decent riding relationship with her new horse.
The equine detail in this book is very strong indeed: Lauren St John has the knack of imparting her considerable knowledge without being either didactic or dull. If you want to know about the current state of eventing, read this book. It's peopled with real-life characters: Mary King; Pippa Funnell; Andrew Nicholson et al, but they're a natural part of the story, and not names flung in simply to impress. Lauren St John has created an impressively realistic slice of eventing life.
The ending certainly comes as a surprise; but the answer to what Casey does next is thoroughly satisfying.
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Lauren St John - Fire Storm
Orion, 2014, hardback, £9.99
Age of main character: 17
Themes: terminal illness (no actual death), some romance, horse abuse (historic)
Lauren St John's website