Mar 4, 2009

Dancer: If some horse books are fantasies, this one is literal.

Dancer: A Novel
by Shelley Peterson
1996

First of all, I think it's worthwhile to say that one review pointed out that this book is "as ingenuous as early Nancy Drew" and that is pretty spot on. Therefore I'm going to have to let go of some of the serious WTF? moments that this book strings along at a consistent rate, because Dancer is 100% pure horse story fantasy. Fantasy as pure as the driven snow. That sort of pure that makes you feel a little sick after being exposed to it for a lengthy amount of time. I'm actually going to tag this as fantasy, because I've got two ghostly visits and a haunted riding crop that tell me it is.

Second, if reaction to my giveaway post concerning Dancer is any indication (not to mention this book's Amazon page), there are some pretty basic schools of thought when it comes down to Shelley Peterson. Either you like her, or you just don't. I have no fond childhood nostalgia for this book, nor am I Canadian, so I really have to go with whatever impression comes to me first, and with Dancer it's that I think this book is mainly exceptionally strange.

Hilary James ('Mousie') is just sixteen when she wins The Fuller Trophy at the Royal Winter Fair jumping her horse, Dancer. Her triumph is rewarded with an invitation to perform in England for Queen Elizabeth, but she has also attracted the unwanted attention of the nefarious Samuel Owens who schemes to acquire Dancer for his niece, Sara. Rebuffed in his first attempt to buy the horse, Owens instructs his hired man, Chad Smith, to try to steal it. Mousie has a dream in which a beautiful blond horsewoman warns her of impending danger.


As far as summaries go, this one is horrible. However, it had no hope of being good, so I'm just going to give whoever wrote it points for trying to compound this book into four sentences.

Mousie is our heroine this time out, and the book opens up with her winning this Royal Winter Fair with her horse, Daring Dancer. Dancer is 17 hands high, a chestnut (12-year-old girls everywhere start squeeing in joy), a stallion, and acts like a human. By this I mean that he cannot be kept in a stall (he will jump out of it or knock the door down or both), chooses only to be ridden by Mousie, "bows" and basically acts like a showman in front of audiences without any command, and acts like a bodyguard (and by this I mean he will attack various intruders, but only to the point that he scares them or has them pinned to the ground). Saying that he is perfect is an understatement, because everything he does is so fantastic he's practically a mythological beast sent straight from Mt. Olympus. However, this is not all of the animal insanity. Mousie and Christine live on a farm surrounded by variously aware animals, such as the attack geese, goat, and terrier. They're all practically out of the movie Babe, only Babe, of course, was so much better.

Okay, so now you know what we're dealing with here. Mousie wins this show, getting the attention of Samuel Owens, who is this level of evil that is impossible to comprehend. He desperately wants the horse for his niece, Sara, and dispatches his trainer, Chad, to convince them to sell. Of course, they do not sell because Dancer is everything to Mousie, whose father has recently died and lives life as the social pariah of her school. Owens is not thrilled about this, so he tells Chad that he is going to get Dancer for him, no matter the cost. Chad accepts his fate and begins to plot.

Enter The Queen. This is Canada, and as some of us probably know, Canada just can't give up the pomp and circumstance of royalty. Thus they are a constitutional monarchy, meaning that some Canadians are crazy fangirls for The Queen (okay, that's not what it means...it's just a result). Shelley Peterson is clearly in this group of people, as are all of her characters. A letter from someone special arrives and informs her that The Queen is coming. OMGYAY! And not only that, Canada is going to put on some special show for her. OMGYAYAGAIN! And not only that, but Mousie has been selected to perform at this very show! Well, everyone about dies from the shock. Mousie and Dancer start to practice terribly hard, and when the show rolls around we are treated to Christine's rather ridiculously detailed description of it. Meanwhile, important stuff is going on with Mousie that we don't hear about until well after the fact. I have never encountered this sort of storytelling before, but it made me want to take the book and throw it at Shelley Peterson. Seriously, what? So when Mousie comes out on Dancer, and she and her saddle fly off of Dancer during the show, resulting in mass hysterics, you feel not only left out, but annoyed.

So because Dancer is a Black Stallion character, the only person who can take him home is Christine. That leaves Sandy, son of Rory, Christine's former high school flame, to go to the hospital with Mousie, who has a crush on Sandy like you would not believe. Convoluted? Maybe! Anyway, Christine leaves Dancer at the stable to go back to the hospital, relieving Sandy, who goes back to the farm with Rory to look over Dancer because Chad Smith is lurking around, being evil. When they get there, all the animals have been drugged and Dancer is gone. Sandy and Rory immediately head over the neighboring farm, conveniently owned by Owens (Rory, Christine, and Owens are all neighbors, of course), and find Dancer dyed black and drugged up in a locked barn. They escape and gallop back to Christine's. Eventually Christine and Mousie arrive home and have a good laugh because Dancer is black and wow, that's sort of amusing?

After this Rory tries to profess his true love to Christine, completely out of nowhere. He is unhappily married to the (evil, alcoholic) Helena, and is not yet divorced, but Christine doesn't know how much he wants to be divorced and turns him away. Meanwhile, Sandy has inadvertently caused a scene with Mousie by trying to take both her and the hated Sara Owens to school in the same car. How dare he! Mousie ignores Sandy for months, toiling in her friendless solitude. Or maybe she finally found a friend in these few months. I can't remember, because Shelley Peterson decided it wasn't important to show Mousie interacting with anyone, making me wonder if this friend is imaginary. Oh, yeah, and Chad Smith dies trying to euthanize Dancer. Mousie interrupts his attempt because some bleeding woman in a dream tells her to, causing Chad to fall over and accidentally stab himself in the chest with a hypodermic. Don't worry! We are assured he felt no pain, and Mousie gets over this trauma fairly quickly. Then Owens appears to inform Christine that he's a NICE GUY REALLY and she TOTALLY BELIEVES HIM because she is incomparably stupid because she is so sweet and nice. And Rory arrives to tell her all about his marriage and convince her that he'd like to date her when he's finally divorced. This pushiness, perhaps not shockingly, relieves her rather than sets her on edge. I'd be backing away slowly and/or screaming for help.

Enter The Queen. Because Queen Elizabeth just loves it when people fall off of seventeen hand horses, she invites Mousie to present Dancer to her court (or something) in England. OMGYAY! And then Mousie's grandmother sends them tons of new, fashionable clothes because they can't go to England wearing their farm rags. OMGYAYAGAIN! They wear their fashionable clothes to the airport, where they are treated to first class and all the wine and crackers they can conceivably eat. Then they are picked up in a limo and taken to the most quaint English cottage in the history of vine covered quaint English cottages. Everyone faints from sheer joy!

Dancer, of course, cannot live in their quaint surroundings, so he is relegated to some super awesome royal stables. There he still won't stay in his damned stall, freaking out one of the grooms to no end. At night, Mousie receives another dream from the bleeding lady, sending her straight to the barn, where Eddie, the unsettled groom, has roped Dancer and is freaking out. Mousie just tells Dancer to go to his stall, and he does, making Eddie look like an idiot. Only Christine then overhears Eddie nefariously plotting to steal Dancer, and wonders who could be behind this plot because surely it is not Samuel Owens! Surely! Christine has Eddie fired, thinking that's the end of it.

Enter The Queen. Mousie performs perfectly for Queen Elizabeth, and Dancer bows and rears to applause because he's that annoying. They win a pretty silver bowl. OMGYAY! Then they dance and eat with royal people and Mousie talks to The Queen. OMGYAYAGAIN! Then the royals indicate that they would really like Dancer for themselves, and Mousie goes into this long speech about how she couldn't possibly, so they relent and ask if they can breed him to their super fabulous mare. Everyone faints from sheer joy!

Then Rory and Helena get divorced and Rory speeds to England with Sandy so he can tell Christine about this. Sandy and Mousie nearly get kidnapped by Eddie, who surely couldn't be employed by Samuel Owens! Surely! Rory is not buying it that Christine keeps dealing out about Owens, not that this matters because it's fox hunt time! Sandy and Mousie get into a highly irritating conversation about the moral qualms of fox hunting, and Mousie is so for ripping those foxes to shreds but do not call her bloodthirsty, damn it! It's a totally non bloodthirsty sport! She thinks! Sandy backs down, because all horse story main characters are right and he has no hope of voicing an opinion. And then Mousie and Prince Charles fox hunt together and have a marvelous time until Eddie comes out of nowhere in an attempt to kill Dancer, but only winds up smacking his head into a tree and breaking his neck. He dies. Mousie and Prince Charles call for a doctor and then proceed with the marvelousness. And she helps some ghost get over her trauma of dying during a fox hunt. Eddie, apparently, will take her place.

Returning to Canada, time passes. Sandy and Mousie are dating, as are Rory and Christine. Samuel Owens is keeping a low profile. Sandy is learning how to ride and buys a horse so he can ride around with Mousie. Another royal letter arrives with pictures of the foal conceived between Dancer and the English Mare of Awesomeness. After about six to seven months of gestation, which makes me want to throw the book at Shelley Peterson again. Mousie dismisses the foal as scraggly and wet, wanting to hear nothing more of it because apparently she was expecting a seventeen hand, fully grown stallion to come popping out of that mare? Christine tries to explain that the foal is a day old, if that, and Mousie ignores her. Confused? You bet I was.

Then everyone goes on a ride, and Sandy's little sister falls. While Mousie is sitting with what's her name, somehow Samuel Owens comes out of nowhere, having been driven insane, and attacks Dancer with a knife. Dancer nearly dies, but of course he doesn't. Samuel Owens is hauled off, Mousie's dead dad appears to reminisce with Christine and Mousie, and then Christine and Rory get married. The end.

Okay.

Either you like Dancer for being the cute, slightly wacky fantasy it is or you dismiss it as unrealistic insanity. Here are some random thoughts (in which I don't rip it apart for being unrealistic, because really that's a waste of breath):

1. The story is invested in appearing innocent, making death practically comical or something easily risen above (Dancer's recovery that is mainly explained by his awesomeness, similar to Wonder's Pride's recovery through love in Pride's Last Race). The characters are black and white, no shades of gray to be found. Even Helena, who might have been good at some point in her life, is evil by the end of the book (drink and bitterness = evilness...remember this kids!).

2. Shelley Peterson is telling the story when she should be showing. That whole scene during The Queen's visit to Canada is the best example of this, as well as deus ex machina. Instead of showing us something relevant to whatever nonexistent plot she's trying to develop, she tells us what's going on in the show through Christine. You know what? I don't give a crap what's going on in the show. You want to know what I care about? THE DAMNED MAIN CHARACTER. Where the hell is she and what is she doing? Do I care about how much The Queen likes seeing some 8-year-old boy from Calgary rope a calf? Nope. Not at all. Then, after the hospital and the plan to dye and kidnap Dancer, Mousie tells us what happened when we were wasting our time with Christine during the show. How much do I care now? NONE AT ALL. Everyone's telling me what happened and jacking up the word count when we could have accomplished everything in half the time by just showing me what was going on with Mousie and Dancer backstage, explaining how she and the saddle fell off of Dancer in the first place.

3. There is no plot. Sure, there's (resolved immediately, yet unnecessarily drawn out) conflict. Sure, stuff happens. Sure, people do things. Mainly? It's about a year in the life of a perfect girl and her supernatural horse, in which they squee over the royals. I couldn't get into this because I ultimately saw no point to the story.

4. Relationships do not work like that! Seriously, no. Rory and Christine can get together. That's fine. Sandy and Mousie can have as much step-sibling sex as they want in the future. I don't care about that either. The whole relationship between Rory and Christine scared me, in total honesty. Rory lives a sham life with his uncaring wife, wants to get divorced but doesn't, randomly tries to tell Christine he loves her after ONE DAY of reminding each other that they exist after YEARS of separation (despite being neighbors!) and is rejected. Then they have a quick "yeah, I'm not happy and want to get divorced" discussion that lasts all of two seconds, he gets divorced, and is (practically the next day!) proposing to Christine? The hell? Who relates to anyone that way and could be called fairly normal by most people? A lot of this book can be chalked up to impatience on the part of the author, I think. This is not good, because it makes the book so much more wacky.

So that's a brief overview of my opinion. It's obviously an unrealistic story, so much so you can't even point that out as a reason to dislike it. This story totally owns up to the fact that it's unrealistic, so you can feel free to like it for its fantasy. Or you can dislike if for some of the facts which I have presented here, realism aside. Or you can dislike it for being totally and unabashedly unrealistic. Whatever you like.

7 comments:

Kelsey said...

Shelley Peterson's husband is a well known politician here in Canada, which explains the OMGROYALTYOMG!

I remember talking to her years and years ago (I went to a signing) and she said that Dancer was her least favourite story. Her publisher wanted something to bring teenaged girls in and needless to say, it worked.

Molly said...

I never did understand why girls are meant to squee over chestnuts. I mean, they're pretty and all, but not omg exceptional/unusual. (But then, I say this as someone whose weakness is greys, so it's possible I just don't get it!)

Mara said...

@kelsey:
I am not really surprised. Dancer is her first novel, isn't it? I'll be interested to see the differences in her next books.

cate said...

the next few books are better than dancer. I picked this book up while i was in Canada several years ago, mainly because it had a horse on it and sounded like it might be interesting. for the majority of the book I had to suspend my disbelief for all the supernatural matters that occurred in this book. but this has to be one of the funniest reviews I have read. I had forgotten how outrageous parts of it were.

Ace said...

Um, wow. I don't really know what to say other than "wow." That is one of the strangest book reviews I have read here in a while. I sort of have the urge to read the book, just to get the whole effect of "WTF?"

Kelsey said...

@Mara:
I thought I already answered this. Maybe the word verifaction wasn't right? Whatever the case, I don't mind repeating myself :)

Yes, Dancer was her first book. I'm assuming her background in theatre has a lot to do with it being SO dramatic.

Abby Malone is probably my favourite out of the series. Not every thing is perfect with her and she goes through a lot of personal changes. It's still a bit unrealistic however. If I recall right, in the first chapter she hops onto a random horse and using only a string to steer, rounds up a bull trying to terrorize her fellow students.

Stagestuck is another Dancer/Owens book with a ghost and play thrown in the mix. It's not bad, but it's not that good either.

Zoe said...

Sounds like a confusing book. I've been considering reading it for awhile and now I'm glad I didn't. It doesnt sound like my kind of book. Thanks for the review.