Published by Orchard Books
More information can be found on the author’s website
Review by Elizabeth Gibson
Before reading The Water Horse, I knew Holly Webb as “the lady who writes all those books with sad puppies and kittens on the front.” I skimmed through a couple of those when I was a tween and they were pretty good, but certainly for younger children. However, I was drawn to The Water Horse by its Venetian setting and the fact that it was clearly a fantasy tale first and foremost, rather than another animal book.
We meet Olivia, Princess of Venice; her long-suffering maid, Etta; her father, the Duke; and her scheming aunt, Lady Sofia. The story begins at a party where Olivia, after dancing so fast she makes herself sick, suddenly breaks free from the spell she has been under and begins to question her privileged existence. She sneaks out of the palace at night to meet her poorer citizens and encounters more than she bargained for: a giant horse that lives in the water. Lucian explains that he is an ancient and highly powerful creature and he and Olivia join forces to try to put things right in the city.
I feel this story took a long time to really get started. The same pieces of information about the royal family and their magic seem to be repeated again and again. However, when the drama finally kicks in, it’s a thrilling tale with plenty of suspense. Olivia is a great heroine and is up against a lot more than many young protagonists. The setting of Venice is so beautifully and evocatively described that I now want to go there on holiday! Lucian is a great character and Lady Sofia is a well-drawn baddie, but my favourite was Etta, the maid, who is smarter and more influential than servants in fiction are often portrayed as being. It is lovely seeing the friendship between her and Olivia grow as the Princess starts to see her maid as her equal.
I’m not really sure what age range this book is intended for. The large print, fairly simple plot and the way ideas are repeated over and over suggest maybe 8-10 year olds but there are some very dark moments which I wouldn’t recommend for anyone under 10 or 11. There is a reference to someone being stabbed and Olivia’s punishment at the climax of the book is serious nightmare material – Olivia herself has nightmares just from hearing about it possibly having happened to someone else.
On the whole, I recommend The Water Horse to anyone who likes fantasy, horses and well-drawn settings and who doesn’t mind reading about characters being in serious peril. The book finishes quite suddenly with some loose ends left untied so I’m glad there’s a sequel coming out next year, this time starring a mermaid. Although I’m way above the target age, I may well read it to see what happens next. Consider me, to some degree, a Holly Webb convert!