(review based on an advance reading copy)
First of all, if you are a horse-fanatic, read this book! HOUSE OF THE STAR is set in a universe where different worlds are connected by magical roads that only special horses called worldrunners can travel. For an added bit of juicy politics, these gifted horses can only breed on Earth.
The story follows Elen, a princess of Ymbria, who desperately wants to become a worldrider. Elen's strongest passion is love: her love for horses, in particular, but her second strongest passion is hate: specifically hate of Caledon, a world that has been at war with her own for her entire life and longer. One might resent such a prejudiced character as Elen if we could not so easily see the brave, kind young girl buried beneath the resentment inherited from her ancestors.
When Elen goes to the House of the Star, a ranch where worldrunners are bred, to learn how to become a worldrider, it seems her life is falling into place. Then she realizes that one of her housemates, a girl she almost accidentally befriended, is a Caledonian. Ria is a welcome addition to the story, because she immediately confirms what I already suspected: the war between Ymbria and Caledon is not a one-sided story, as much as Elen wants to believe otherwise.
As might be expected, Ria and Elen find they must learn to work together if neither intends to abandon the prospect of becoming a worldrider. This doesn't happen easily, though! Despite begrudging attempts to be civil, Elen maintains that Ria is evil, a spy and possibly bent on destroying the universe. Of course, everyone brushes off such embittered claims, but then something terrible and unexpected happens and it seems Ria, acting for Caledon, might actually be behind it.
This is well-written story that held me captive from start to finish. While Elen and Ria's prejudices are no mild mannered dislikes, but writhing, intense fevers of irrational loathing, Brennan still manages to make them both likable! This is in great part achieved through their obvious tenderness for horses, but also because it is clear their hatred is just one of the many negative products of war.
My only quibble with HOUSE OF THE STAR is how Elen overcomes her hate, by the magical interference of the Horned King. I would have much preferred watching her make the change gradually and through her own adaptation of mindset. I should acknowledge the strong possibility that there was no true magic on the part of the Horned King and, thus, Elen did push away her hate by herself, but even then the Horned King still played a vital role through his trickery. To Brennan's credit, prejudice is a big, bold issue to tackle, but I looked forward to seeing how Ria might win Elen over, and was disappointed when the problem was solved, in effect, with "magic wand waving."