Once again, Susan Wiggs shows her expertise in crafting an unusual and absorbing historical romance. The Horsemasterís Daughter, a worthy sequel to The Charm School, is the story of Hunter Calhoun, owner of the rundown Albion plantation in tidewater Virginia. The year is 1854. Hunterís estranged wife is dead, his two small children are distant, and his only solace is the whisky that numbs the pain. Hunterís dream of establishing a successful racing stud is about to be laid to rest. The horse that was supposed to save that dream, an Irish Thoroughbred named Sir Finnegan, has proved to be so dangerous that Hunter is about to put him down.
Noah, a young stablehand, persuades Hunter to take Finn to Flyte Island, where he can find the legendary horsemaster Henry Flyte. Henry is said to be possessed of a rare talent in gentling horses. Unable to resist the lure of one final hope, Hunter sails the horse on a scow to the small offshore island, only to find Henry Flyte dead and the island virtually deserted. The only inhabitant is Henryís daughter, Eliza.
Eliza is instantly suspicious of this handsome stranger, but cannot help being drawn to the fear-wracked horse. When Hunter scoffs at her avowed ability to gentle Finn, Eliza is determined to prove him wrong, which she does. Soon Finn is a changed horse. Hunter is unwillingly falling under her spell as well. Eliza senses the pain inside him, and against her better judgment, reaches out to the man she senses underneath. Hunter, born and bred to the wealthy planterís way of life, knows he could never marry this untutored island girl who goes about in rags and bare feet, but he cannot resist the lure of passion. Can two people from such different worlds find their way to a lasting love?
Susan Wiggs portrays to perfection the emotional anguish of a man about to face his ultimate failure in life. Yet Hunter never sinks into melodrama. His redemption at the hands of the most unlikely woman possible is the perfect counterpoint to his bitterness and pain. Eliza, for her part, is showed with a natural maturity that transcends her lack of formal schooling. Itís a solid core that will stand her in good stead when Hunter takes her back to Albion and she must deal with his children, his neighbors, and all that his world entails.
The one element I struggled with was the ages of the two leads. It was never clear exactly how old Hunter was -- there were references to his being 12 years older than his half-brother, Ryan, and not marrying until he was finished with university, but in my mind, this put him at nearly 40, with Eliza perhaps being in her early twenties. This might have been deliberately vague on the part of the author, but it had the effect of keeping the leads just a little hazy in my mind. Just when I thought I had it figured out, another reference would throw me off a little bit. But thatís a small quibble in the midst of an otherwise mesmerizing read.
Readers who enjoyed The Charm School will delight in The Horsemasterís Daughter. Susan Wiggsí reputation as a premiere author of unusual, absorbing historical romances is well-deserved, indeed.