Sign up for e-News Donate
Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley

May 1, 2002

Jove Books, New York
March 1999

In the year or so since these reviews first began as a regular feature within the MVAC website, I have featured works of archaeological fiction from several genres: political thrillers, a variety of mystery sub-genres, science fiction, horror, and even a quasi-text book.  It became apparent that I had overlooked one important category—a category, in fact, that outsells every other genre in fiction.  That category is, of course, the romance novel!

Romance novels have long used archaeology as a backdrop for their heavy breathing epics—exotic locales, studly heroes in fedoras and ravishingly beautiful heroines are practically synonymous with the average archaeological excavation, as we well know—just ask anyone who has participated in an MVAC adult field school.  Not surprisingly, most of these are pretty dreadful works of literature (although usually quite profitable), but there are some very notable and very worthwhile exceptions.

Perhaps the best known and of consistently high quality are the novels of Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels—especially the wonderful Amelia Peabody series.  But I’d like to briefly review a lesser-known writer, Susanna Kearsley, and her quirky but endearing archaeological romance, The Shadowy Horses.

Set on the North Sea coast of Scotland, The Shadowy Horses includes the requisite set of characters (many of whom spend a good deal of time brooding), a semi-mystical locale, passions simmering just below the surface, a little boy gifted with “second sight,” and even the possibility of a ghost—in this case, the shade of a long-dead Roman legionnaire from the legendary Legio IX Hispana—who protects what might be the last campsite of the soldiers of the Ninth Legion.

Our heroine, Verity Grey, is pretty, plucky, somewhat demure, but still her very own person—and an archaeologist, to boot.  David Fortune is the darkly handsome broody boy archaeologist of uncertain parentage, who may, if things work out well, may just get the heroine in the end—unless she decides to take the offer to join a dig in Egypt when this Scottish project is complete.  I shan’t (as they say in romance novels) give away her choice.   If it seems I am dismissing this novel as far too fluffy and lightweight for my elevated literary tastes, read on!  I very much liked the novel (in fact, I’ve now read it twice!)  and while I think it is probably quite formulaic, the characters are reasonably well drawn, the plot interesting, and the archaeology very accurate, including fairly complex explanations of high tech archaeological tools such as ground-penetrating radar and more traditional methods of excavation.