In the dawn of time, women ruled, and the people had no word for war. Then the horsemen came. Sarama is the last of the White Mare's servants, descended from an ancient line conquered long ago by warrior tribes. Her father is the king of one such tribe. Her twin brother Agni is the king's heir. But she is heir to an older world, and a different way. A sacred vision calls the White Mare westward, and Sarama follows. There, she finds a land where women rule, and men serve, and their language has no word for war. But the horsemen are coming. Sarama must choose between her own people and the people whom she has come to love, and find a way to save them both.
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Sarama is the servant of the White Mare, the Lady of the Horses. Her mother died giving birth to her and her twin brother Agni. Agni is the heir of the king of the White Horse tribe; Sarama is heir to an older tradition, from before their mother's people became a part of the male-ruled tribes.
The old woman who was the White Mare's servant before her told Sarama that she will be the last one. There's no one else of the pure bloodline. When stories reach the tribe of a wealthy land far to the west, a land ruled by women, Sarama take the Mare and a pack pony, and heads west to find this land where maybe the Lady is still worshiped.
Before she goes, she asks Agni to promise not to lead the White Horse tribe west.
But the climate is changing; life on the steppes is getting harder. The tribes in most distant eastern lands are pushing west, seeking better prospects, and pushing everyone west of them further west.
Sarama finds her western land, and a wealthy and peaceful people who worship the Lady and are ruled by women. She finds peace and love. Also resistance and hostility. Some among the Lady's people think she's a spy for the tribes to the east, that she will lead them to this peaceful and and bring war.
And the tribes are coming. The pressure from the east isn't letting up, and the trives near the western edge of the steppe are starting to move.
Meanwhile, Agni is having his own problems. Their father the king is aging, and their older half-brother, Yama, is ambitious. When Yama's treachery leads to him being cast out of the tribe rather than elevated to the kingship, Agni takes his possessions and those who chose to follow him into exile and goes...where? What choices does he have, with no land on the steppes that he and his tiny band can take?
It's a reach to call this historical fiction; we don't know anything like this much about this period of pre-history. What it is, is plausible. Something like this had to happen, as nomadic tribes under climate pressure and population pressure encountered the earliest settled agricultural communities, with the food and the leisure to develop more art and technology than the nomads could support, but perhaps didn't initially have the same military capacity, because their relative prosperity left them without the need to raid each other.
As the horsemen moved west, the settled people would have needed a defense they didn't initially have any idea how to provide for themselves.
This is a very interesting take on this highly speculative period of history. Tarr doesn't glorify or sentimentalize either the agriculturalists or the nomads; there's good and bad, as well as strenghts and weaknesses, on both sides. And while I believe Tarr did a good deal of research on what was known at the time, this book is almost twenty years old and likely out of date in ways that might irritate someone who is more up to date on what we currently think we know about the period. But that's all fine. She's not presenting this as a history lesson. It's a story, an interesting, fun one with characters I came to really care about.
I received a free copy of this audiobook from Audible, in exchange for an honest review.