Kerr, well-known for his best-selling World War II thrillers for adults (A Man Without Breath, 2013, etc.), enters YA territory with a compelling but ultimately flawed tale of saving the last Przewalski’s horses from Nazi invaders.
Elderly Max has been caretaker of the Ukrainian nature preserve Askaniya-Nova all his life, from its inception by a gallant German baron at the beginning of the century through torture and destruction during World War I and even now, as the Nazis invade. Max initially believes the Germans will, like his former master, be kind to him and the animals in the preserve, particularly the small herds of Przewalski’s horses, some of the last on Earth of a very ancient breed. Meanwhile, Kalinka, a 15-year-old Jew orphaned by a German pogrom, has escaped to the steppe and makes friends with two of the remarkable horses, who are renowned for both their wildness and their cunning. Fast-paced action and interesting history (Askaniya-Nova still exists; the horses have been restored there) keep readers turning the pages, but the distant, omniscient point of view will prevent them from becoming truly engaged in the characters’ plight. Flat dialogue often sounds as though it’s coming from a tour guide, not a Russian peasant, and the abrupt ending doesn’t fully satisfy. Though marketed for teens, it reads more like an adventure for children.
A worthwhile-enough read for kids particularly interested in history and/or horses. (Historical fiction. 10-14)