Book review: The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

If anyone understands the complicated nuance involved in realising your dreams, it is author Kate Mascarenhas.

In The Thief on the Winged Horse, Mascarenhas explores peoples’ manipulation of destiny and fate from the point of view of three divergent characters, all of whom are challenging the status quo in their own unique and sometimes morally dubious ways.

While she does this with great skill and empathy, she also takes a hard look at the people who embody the existing order and how it become so sclerotic and so far from the ideals that characterised its commencement that it is scarcely recognisable at the vital, visionary entity it once was.

The contrast is stark and troubling as we examine what Kendricks, a doll making house of some 200 years standing which uses magic to imbue each of its handmade creations with a specific emotion such as fear, happiness or love, has come to represent since its founding by four sisters.

You would expect that a firm founded by women would be a beacon of equal opportunity for both genders but instead Kendricks is now fearfully misogynistic under the tutelage of contrarily cruel Conrad who, like his male forebears, believes women are neither fit to make the dolls nor apply the magical hex to them that will give them rare emotional power, so powerful that buyers buy top dollar to own as many of the dolls as possible.

He is also firmly of the opinion, and here he is remains a slave to tradition, that only members of the family can be trusted with the secrets of Kendricks manufacturing process which even in the 21st century feels like something out of steampunk Victorian England.

“‘Hang on,’ Larkin said. ‘What’s wrong with Imogen’s drink?’

‘Nothing,’ countered Daisy. ‘It’s an old eyot superstition. When we lose an object, we say it’s been taken by the Thief, he’s one of the fae folk, and he rides a winged horse. He only returns what we’ve lost when we offer something in exchange.'” (PP. 54-55)

Within this little-changed world where power and privilege are almost exclusively in the hands of a male elite and the idea of women ascending to any sort of position of creative or corporate responsibility is well nigh unthinkable, live Hedwig, house manager for Conrad, and Persephone, who alcoholic father is Conrad’s disinherited brother Briar, a man who had it all and lost it almost as comprehensively.

Both these young women have lofty and ambitious dreams, both appreciate how hard it will be to realise those shimmering orbs of possibility but neither is willing to accept no for an answer.

Joining them is Larkin, a mysterious young man who claims to be from a hitherto believed dead end of the family and who is eager to a pushy, if well articulated, degree to make sure he becomes the supremely gifted dollmaker of his dreams.

Persephone shares this dream of being admitted to the inner dollmarking sanctum, overseen with sneering scorn by Alistair who treats Persephone with open condescension while granting Larkin the kind of freedom that his gender automatically confers.

There is no doubt that Larkin is talented, but so is Perspephone and when she is given, in secret, of course, the kind of tutelage she needs to excel, she soon proves that the prejudice against women inbuilt into the company’s rotten DNA is as misbegotten as those who oversee it.

Kate Mascarenhas (image courtesy official author site)

The Thief on the Winged Horse, which takes its name from a mythical figure that many believes holds sway over the fortunes of the company and its familial members – though Mascarenhas often suggests in ways wickedly delightful whether he is so mythical after all – is a breathtakingly good deep dive into what makes one person pursue their dreams in one fashion while another takes another tack entirely.

As the story moves along at a thoughtful but cracking pace, we see again and again how the Disney approach to realising your dreams – believe it and they will happen! You are good and wonderful and will get all your heart desires! – simply doesn’t hold up in the real world, even when it is headily awash in magic.

That doesn’t mean to say that fulfilling your heart’s desire is a fool’s errand in these circumstances.

On the contrary, there is something touching about the way that Persephone in particular goes about proving that she is worthy of being called a Sorcerer, someone who can take a hand-fashioned doll and give it the emotions that Kendricks’ wealthy, obsessed customers covet.

While there is a brutalist, take-no-prisoners cleverness to the approaches of Larkin and Hedwig, who play a polite game on the surface but are brandishing metaphorical swords just out of sight, Persephone, who has to contend with an overwhelming number of trenchant challenges, moves tenaciously on, intent on liberating not just herself but others too from the strictures of a world long fossilised in place.

“The day after Persephone and Larkin agreed to collaborate, she spent in tension at the thought of sharing her work. She had chosen a maquette that she would take to him, a kind of early draft using wax and pine, so that he might advise her of improvements. Her work sorely needed some guidance, but this didn’t lessen her anxiety that he would tell her to give up. Might her work be that bad? Had she, for years, been cursing Kendrick for failing to train her, when really the problem was her own lack of talent?” (P. 203)

In many affecting ways, The Thief on the Winged Horse is far more of a clarion call to dream fulfillment than its more sunny, sing-sonny counterparts, because it dares to say that even in the very worst of places and among lives thought too blighted to be of any real use, good and uplifting things can happen.

It doesn’t do this by sending bluebirds into the sky singing or have everything work out perfectly well – while the ending is happy in a way, it is not wholly so – but by showing via beautifully lucid and affectingly honest prose how tenacious the human spirit can be.

While knowing where these key characters land after much hard work and dedication is, naturally, best left to the reading, suffice to say that they are all, in their own way, proof that you do indeed reap what you sow.

All this sowing and reaping takes place against luminously emotionally resonant gothic machinations, the kind that are as capricious as they well thought-out, and which speak to the moral and ethical bankruptcy of people who have long lost sight of what it means to fight for anything having had the world handed to them on a doll-shaped platter from the moment they were born.

As tales of dream realisation go, The Thief on the Winged Horse is superb, heartfelt, empathetic, grimly realistic and blisteringly honest, a tale of pursuing your hopes and dreams against seemingly impossible odds, and doing so all too aware that there is no real Plan B and you have to make this work or metaphorically die trying.

As a consequence, it’s a charmingly consuming book, one that knows and appreciate the perils and flaws of the human condition but which also knows good can come from it too, and that it finds expression, against every expectation otherwise, in the most wondrous and unexpected, if troubled, of ways.

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