The Highest Stakes
How interested are you in thoroughbred horses? Would you rather read about interesting horses than interesting human characters? Would the “begat” section of the Bible be more fascinating to you if it featured horses instead of people? If the answers to all these questions is “Hell, yeah!”, then I’ve got a book for you. If you’re thinking, “not so much”, then you’ll want to skip Highest Stakes.
Set primarily in England during the 1740s and 50s, this book is a painstakingly researched look into horse-breeding and racing at the time. The hero is Robert Devington, a groom/crack racer who falls in love with his boss’s niece, gets soundly put in his place by said boss, joins the military, becomes a hero, befriends his superior officer Phillip Drake, tries to elope with his love, fights a duel with his former friend, gets court-martialed and exiled to the colonies, raises horses there, then comes back and gets his revenge. The heroine/lady love is Charlotte Wallace. She’s similarly horse-mad and in love with Devington. But after his exile she believes him dead and is forced to marry his arch nemesis. Meanwhile, she raises horses, biding her time until Devington reappears and they are reunited.
And that’s it. Oh, there’s some other stuff. More than five hundred pages of other stuff, and most of it about horses. But there are a few other people in there as well. Drake has a sadistic brother who almost marries Charlotte and then marries Charlotte’s cousin Beatrix, but would rather have married Charlotte’s cousin Charles. Drake also gets two different women pregnant and has an interesting mistress. But the action, such as it is, mostly centers around Devington and Charlotte. And their horses. So. Many. Horses.
Initially, I thought this book wasn’t that bad. The 1740s and 50s are a fascinating time – one that’s underrepresented in fiction. When the story centered on military life, it was at its best. The author very obviously did her homework, and it showed.
The problem is that most of the book was not about that; it was about Devington, Charlotte, and horses. Horse genealogy figures prominently in the first half of the book, and nearly every time we meet a horse, which is often, we get to hear about all his or her equine ancestors – sometimes more than once. Darley Arabian this, broodmare that, and so and so’s sire. You’ve got to be really into horses to enjoy this portion of the book.
The second half of the book focuses a little less on the horses, which would have been an improvement if the protagonists had been remotely interesting. Sadly, I couldn’t stand either of them. Devington and Charlotte are petulant, whiny, and insipid. I’m not really sure which of them was worse, but it’s probably Devington, who really needed to man up and stop being such a vengeful child. A few hundred pages with these two almost had me pining for more horse breeding details.
You know who was interesting? Phillip Drake, the so-called villain. I liked him way better than either of the main characters. He’s complicated, multi-layered, and a little tortured. He’s the one I was really rooting for – so much so that I was disappointed by the “happy” ending.
Speaking of which, it was the ending that pushed Highest Stakes into D territory for me. Up until that point, Drake and the military details were at least enough to earn a C, if not a high one. But I found the ending so irritating, the final scene with Devington and Charlotte so annoying, that it was really the proverbial nail in the coffin. If you’re the world’s biggest thoroughbred enthusiast, perhaps you can overlook the many problems with this book. I’m not, and I couldn’t.