King of the Wind
We actually listened to the audio version of this story and also supplemented with some actual book reading. It had some very large words, such as "pedigree" and "discordant" as well as some unfamiliar horse terminology such as "mare" and "foal". The book starts before Chapter 1, in current day, talking about a race horse named Man-o-war. We listened to several minutes before I stopped and asked my 7y son if he knew what was being talked about - he didn't. Along with the unfamiliar subject of race horses is the unfamiliar concept of a Sultan who gives gifts to nearby kings in a turban-wearing country with slaves. There are religious references by way of prayers to Allah. There are also suspenseful moments when Agba runs away from death and falls down by the camel (the running reminded me of Forrest Gump) or when six boys shave and wash and go before the Sultan of Morocco not knowing that they are about to be included in a gift of horses to King Louis XV of Versailles.
It isn't until page 59 that we realize Agba, the main character, is mute. Even though it was stated a few times throughout the book, I'm not sure my 7y son ever caught on to it. He is a stable boy for the Sultan and cares for a horse named Sham. Sham almost died a few days after being born. Everyone gave up on him but Agba who nursed him to strength and developed a special relationship with him.
The Sultan wanted to make a gift to the King of France in the hopes of winning his favor. So he selects six horses and stable boys to send as a gift. Agba and Sham are included. Each boy was to "care for the horse in his charge as long as that horse shall live. Upon the death of the horse, the boy shall return at once to Morocco." (p. 55) The Sultan escorted the boys and horses to the ship and "returned to his palace with a smile of satisfaction, thinking how neatly his plans were working out. // He did not know that the captain of the vessel had pocketed the money sent to buy corn and barley for the horses and had stuffed the sacks with straw instead. Nor did he know that the horseboys would be made to man the heavy sails on stormy seas. Nor that day after day they would be fed only on bread and water until they were skin and bones when, at last, they reached the coast of France." (p. 67)
When they were finally presented to the King, as horses "descended from mares that once belonged to Mohammed" (p. 73) and that could be used to "strengthen and improve [their] breed" (p. 73) they were laughed at. After the laughter subsides the King's assistant snorts snuff, with quite a bit of detail. They decide to use the horses as cart horses. Sham is assigned to the Chief of the Kitchen at the Sultan's palace and the rest to the army.
Sham has quite a temper and really only behaves under Agba's direction. So when other people try to work with Sham, he tends to act out which results in him being traded or sold. Agba manages to follow Sham although some times are more difficult than others. In quite a few instances the situations seem neglectful or abusive. There is some amount of detail but nothing too graphic.
Chapters 16 & 17 find Agba in jail on suspicion of being a horse thief. (Really he was just trying to remain close to Sham but couldn't speak to defend himself or explain the situation.) Through a series of fortunate events he is discovered by an old friend and some royalty and suddenly his position in life moves up a few pegs.
Up to this point Agba has just gone with the flow. But in the Earl's stable he becomes jealous of the Earl's favorite horse - Hobgoblin and his thoughts express his hatred toward the favored animal. When the Earl acquires a female horse for the purpose of breeding with Hobgoblin, something snaps in Agba and he runs to free Sham who captures the heart of Roxana and thus brings great embarrassment to the Earl. Agba, Sham (and the cat) are banished into nature for almost two years. Agba understood the severity of his actions and accepted and followed his punishment. He lived in exile for two years until the Earl recognized the potential of Sham's descendants and called Agba home.
After much suffering there is a happy ending. The omniscient narrator tells us that, "For the first time in his life, he was glad he could not talk. Words would have spoiled everything." (p. 169) The last chapter, which takes up almost the space of one page front and back, is such a nice summary and wrap-up as is rarely seen. Several times throughout the book Sham is referred to as the Godolphin Arabian (owned by the Earl of Godolphin) but here he is referred to almost exclusively by that name - which may be confusing for young listeners but I'm sure they'll catch on fast as the book wraps up. It talks about where Sham is buried, lists his descendants, mentions how, "the carter of Paris and the King's cook and the mistress of the Red Lion [would] have laughed in scorn at the idea of Sham attaining such fame." (p. 172) A brief reference to Man-o-war (from the first chapter) concludes the wrap around nicely and finally we learn what became of the Earl and of Agba.