Cover Image: The Sport of Kings

The Sport of Kings

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Member Reviews

This was an enjoyable read and I would recommend it. thanks for letting me have an advance copy. I'm new to this author.
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I appreciated the premise of this novel and it holds very important issues. However, I felt that it lacked consistency. The author seemed to want to drag on this book for longer than it needed to be. The horse racing didn't particularly interest me, but the sections surrounding The Forbes' racism were the most well written parts of the novel. If this book wasn't so developed and dragged out, I would have given it a higher rating.
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I am in charge of our Senior School library and am looking for a diverse array of new books to furnish their shelves with and inspire our young people to read a wider and more diverse range of books as they move through the senior school. It is hard sometimes to find books that will grab the attention of young people as their time is short and we are competing against technology and online entertainments.
This was a thought-provoking and well-written read that will appeal to young readers across the board. It had a really strong voice and a compelling narrative that I think would capture their attention and draw them in. It kept me engrossed and I think that it's so important that the books that we purchase for both our young people and our staff are appealing to as broad a range of readers as possible - as well as providing them with something a little 'different' that they might not have come across in school libraries before.
This was a really enjoyable read and I will definitely be purchasing a copy for school so that our young people can enjoy it for themselves. A satisfying and well-crafted read that I keep thinking about long after closing its final page - and that definitely makes it a must-buy for me!
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I received this book from Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Starting a book with violence against children is not a good way to win me over. The characters were unpleasant, the plot was uninspiring but most of all within a few pages I was worn out by the endlessly convoluted prose. I felt like I was chewing through piles of the karsty landscape the author was so fond of describing again and again and again.
I had read so many effusive reviews that I struggled on way past the point of any enjoyment. At 30% I asked ‘Why are you doing this to yourselff?" and I just couldn’t come up with a reasonable answer.
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I gave it several tries but found myself unable to get past the 1/3 of the book. The writing is ambitious and sweeping, with sections that were quite memorable, but the subject matter (racism and incest as two interrelated themes) made reading difficult all on its own, and combined with the pacing and digressive style, I found myself more and more hesitant to read. At 28%, I guess I just have to say this wasn't the book for me: based on the description I expected something a little more focused and a little less depressing. I won't be reviewing the book elsewhere because I think it's not a bad novel, just not one for me.
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I did not enjoy reading this book and it did not live up to my expectations.
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I read this book for 3 days and was still only 30% of the way through. When the story was there it was good but trying to find the story amongst all the extraneous parts became boring so I gave up.. Sorry the preview sounded good.
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With threads that cover a wide range of topics such wealth, poverty, slavery, racism this is a story of Henry Forge.

Set in the 1950's in Paris, Henry is a remarkable man. His parents are not bothered by his ambition of  turning the family farm into a horse breeding farm.

This is a big book with a lot of story, and to be honest I did not know if I would actually finish it.

It is a fascinating read and well worth the journey
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I failed to connect to the story. I will not review this book on my website.
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Powerful. Extensive. Brutal. Depressing.

Detailed descriptions, abundant use of adjectives. Broad range of subject matter.

Brilliant. Poetic at times.

Yet, the transitions were often abrupt. From one paragraph to another, the point of view, the main character, the storyline itself shifted without warning. I stumbled. I felt thrown under the bus as a reader at those times.

Dark. Long. Unrelenting. Subject matter ranges from race relations, the South, horse racing to incest. No relief from the torment. Even the beauty of the land seems to be a source of contempt.

Passionate. A writer dedicated to her craft.

But when I read the ending, I felt incomplete as a reader.
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The Forge family is one of the oldest of Kentucky; the novel opens on the child Henry Forge, and on his conflict with his father, strict and bound to traditions: the Forge terrains will forever be used for agriculture.

Henry's childhood is also marked by the discovery of her mother betrayal with an afro american man working for their family, and by the consequences of telling what he knows to his father.

Henry has the dream to breed horses, perfect beings that he sees as the apex of an evolutionary ladder; this way a new phase of his life begins; Henry is father of Henrietta and an entrepreneur obsessed by perfection.

On the other side of the borders, in Ohio, Allmon Shaughnessy grows up. Afro-american, his family is poor and since his childhood Allmon deals with criminal activities, since he is incarcerated. In jail he has a second chance to get his life better: to learn to deal with horses and then to work for the important farms that breed them in Kentucky. 

While the destiny of Henry, Henrietta and Allmon get closer, the sons keep in perpetuating the errors of their fathers, in a circle that will be broken only by dramatic events.

Henry hates his father and his traditional ideas, but in the end he does the same: Henrietta's education and her not going to college, his ill-concealed racist ideas, and the strict conviction of being possible to obtain the perfect horse, an idea linked to old evolutionary theories already proved wrong.

Allmon, willing to redeem himself from poverty and from his past as prisoner, will end up committing the same errors of his father who left him.

In the middle of these family sagas, that takes origin from the time when Kentucky's terrains were conquered and when slaves tried to be free by crossing the river to the north, there is Hellsmouth: the perfect filly bred by Henry, named by Henrietta and tended by Allmon, maybe the horse itself a symbol of a modern slavery?

The novel is quite engaging in unraveling the story of the Forge family, and the interludes - not linked to the main plot - provide information about the past, useful in understanding the origin of the main characters. The second part of the novel, mainly focused on Hellsmouth training in view of the Derby, is slower and less engaging to the non enthusiastic about racing horses.

Thanks to the publisher for providing me the copy necessary to write this review.
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There’s not much this book ISN’T about – love, obsession, racism, poverty, inequality, slavery, jealousy, prejudice – the list goes on. Not to mention horseracing and the American health care system. And then there are all the characters. Loads of them and of all sorts – and all vividly drawn - although the story concentrates on just three of them. And it spans lifetimes, jumping back and forth in time, with many digressions along the way. Sprawling indeed and a saga of a family to beat all others in terms of dysfunction. It’s a challenging read but ultimately I found it immersive and compelling, even if I skipped some of the unnecessary digressions (they seemed to me to add nothing to the narrative). Although I was absorbed by the story I didn't identify with any of the characters as they all seemed unlikeable to a lesser or greater extent and I wasn’t emotionally engaged. I don’t think this is a great novel, by any standard, nor is it as good as some of the adulatory reviews make out. But it is a very good novel and well worth the effort of excusing its faults and letting it carry you into its world.
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The saga of a family. A family whose life is linked to the soil on which they live and to the horses they breed. John Henry Forge raises his son Henry in the tradition of the white settlers of Kentucky. The supremacy of the white race is never questioned and on the family farm, the roles are clearly ascribed. Young Henry has a dream, already when he is just a small boy, he sees their land as the perfect place for breeding horses, but his father will hear nothing of this. When he takes over the farm, his chance arises and he becomes one of the best in the business. Yet, not only in horses is it important to take care of the blood line, he also chooses his wife with care and thus can produce the perfect white child: Henrietta. Like father like daughter does she grow up learning about the white race’s authority and rule. But times are a changing in the 20th century and creating the perfect race horse and the perfect daughter might not be enough anymore.

C.E. Morgan’s novel has been nominated for most of the important prizes for literature in 2016 and 2017: It has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2017, for the James Tait Black Fiction Prize 2016; it was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017 and won the Kirkus fiction prize 2017 and the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize 2016. It made the second place on the BBC books of the year 2016 list. Coming with so much glory, the expectations were high and the author easily matched them.

To say what the novel is actually about, is not that easy. Quite logically considering its length, there is a lot in it. First of all, the Forge family. The way the children are raised, the relationships between the generations but also between the spouses are interesting to observe in the way not only they are at a fixed moment in time – I really pitied young Henry when he wanted to share his dreams and visions with his stubborn father – but also how they develop over the time, here Henrietta plays the most important role. Even though she is a woman and as such by nature inferior to men, she can take over the male role and successfully lead the dynasty. But there is not much affection between the characters. It is especially Henrietta who realizes that she is lacking love and warmth and since she has never learnt how to express her feelings, she seriously struggles in getting involved with somebody. It is the women who struggle most with society’s expectations and their inner feelings – not only at the beginning, but also after the year 2000:
“The irony was bare and bitter and unavoidable: she was a woman, so she was a slave to life. Never before had she understood the brutal actuality of life in a body she didn’t choose. (...) Women invited death when they let men inside their bodies! Why did they do it? Love couldn’t possibly be worth it.”

Apart from the humans, the breeding of the horses plays a major role in the plot. I am not into horses at all and know almost nothing about these animals. But it is fascinating to see how close the characters get with them, how they observe details and can communicate with and understand them Also the idea of breeding the perfect race horse is quite appealing and interesting. Admittedly, would I have been asked before if I was interested in the description of a horse race, I certainly would have disagreed, but I was wrong.

Last but not least, a major topic is also slavery, resp. the formal abolition of it but the remaining prejudices in the heads – of the whites as well as the blacks. Even in the year 2006, equally has not been established. There have been improvements, but due to inheritance, a family name and the like - unfortunately not only in literature.

Apart from the plot, it is also C. E. Morgan’s masterly writing which makes reading the novel a pleasure. To tell the stories of the different family members, she finds an individual tone for them. John Henry is reserved, unkind and rather factual. Young Henry is full of childish amazement and effervescent until he becomes the head of the family. Strongest are the women, first of all Henrietta, but also her mother Judith and the housekeeper Maryleen and Allmon’s mother. She gives them a voice and especially thoughts they share with the readers which make them really come to life. She finds metaphors as well as comments by the narrator which sometimes even addresses you directly. The tone is serious at times, funny at others, sometimes sad, rarely joyful – just as life can be.
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Books such as The Sport of Kings is the reason why I remain a big fan of the Women's Prize for Fiction, and why I commit to reading its short list. I had seen the book about in shops and in reviews but I had always avoided it as I'm not interested in horse-racing, its world, or the people who inhabit it. So, if it hadn't been shortlisted for the, then, Bailey's Prize, I would never have read it. And what a loss that would have been as, my, this book is absolutely terrific. An impressive achievement and a moving read.

And it has almost nothing to do with horse-racing!

The Sport of Kings is C.E. Morgan's bold and ambitious attempt to breathe life back into the Great American Novel. For this is a momentous book (both in size at 500 pages and in scope) that examines three generations of the same rich Kentucky family, and the lives of those linked to them, and who work on their estate. It's a book that challenges, head on, greed, poverty, racism, misogyny, incest, the American medical system, prisons, the weight of history, and much more.

With such a large cast of characters, and with so many lives to explore, this could have been sprawling. It also could have been rocky for a white woman from Ohio (C.E. Morgan) to take on so many subjects about which she had no direct experience. Yet this book is an extraordinary success. It is powerful, truthful, painful and heartbreaking to read at times. But, ultimately, a testament to the profound issues that divide American society today.

The book centres around Henry Forge, who, at the start of the book, is a young boy. The only son of John Henry Forge, a violent racist and misogynist who owns a vast estate in Kentucky, and who is proud to trace his family line back to the White settlers who came to the area in the aftermath of the Revolution.. But his son betrays his legacy to maintain the estate as a farm when, on the death of his father in the Sixties, he turns the estate's focus to horse-racing.  

Running parallel to this central story is another - that of Allmon Shaughnessy. A son of a black woman and her errant White Irish lover who lives in abject poverty in Cincinnati. A terrible childhood leads to a period in prison and, on his release, he commits to work as a groom. Which, in turn, leads him into the employ of Henry Forge, now a man in his prime - and a man whose own disturbed childhood has led to him continuing his father's legacy of violence, misogyny and racism.

The horse-racing is there but it works as an allegory in this book. The way we break in a horse, break their spirit, is mirrored in the way the men treat the woman. The obsession with selective breeding and bloodstock in horses is reflected in the way the Forge men seek the same in their own lives... And so on.

It is a book that takes time to read. Yes, it is long and it is so dense and richly layered that there is much to absorb. Occasionally there are passages of landscape description that seem too much and too heavy; occasionally there are passages where this seems too sparse. But, on balance, I was blown away by this book. What an achievement by C.E. Morgan. Especially as for all the themes covered, it is the characters who lead this story. they are fully fleshed out, complicated, and truthful.
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I was very glad to be approved for The Sport of Kings. I am very interested in the Bailey's prize for fiction.
This was a pleasant surprise. I was worried that perhaps it would be bogged down with sport and horses but the balance of sport versus real life relationships was very well done.
Perhaps a little long in places, but a very enjoyable read none the less.
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Please see the link below to watch my review of 'The Sport of Kings' on my YouTube channel.
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‘The Sport of Kings’ is a book that demands attention.  It stood out in the Bailey’s shortlist due to its size – at 560 pages it physically dwarfs all the other nominees; it also probably has my favourite cover on the list (not that literary prizes should be judged along these criteria).  From the sheer grandeur of its physical presence, Morgan’s novel is an exciting prospect; when you consider it’s also been shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, the James Tait Black Fiction Prize, was a Pulitzer finalist and won the Kirkus Fiction Prize the weight of expectation increases yet further.

Along with ‘weighty,’ ‘ambitious’ is probably the adjective most used to describe the book in the reviews I’ve read.  It’s certainly a word that kept returning to me as I planned this post.  Morgan’s novel has an epic scope, starting with a boy running away from his father through the green corn of their Kentucky farm and then following the themes of escaping and breeding, land and the American Dream through hundreds of breathless pages.  It’s not long after this aborted flight that the young Henry Forge finds his vocation, he is determined to abandon his father’s lifestyle as a gentleman farmer and set up as a horse breeder.

This is only a part of the novel.  Later sections will concentrate on Henry’s beloved daughter and the stranger who threatens to destroy their disturbing, claustrophobic relationship.  Interrupting each long chapter are interludes which will teach you more than you might expect about horse breeding and the insidious ways in which the sport can be read as a commentary on American history and society.

‘Ultimately you may breed for color just as you may breed for conformation, speed strength, &etc, but the organism itself exerts no will to form.  The natural dispersal of color is neither random nor intentional.  Which is all to say there may be tyrants with no ambition for power.’

The quotation above came from the first interlude (between chapter 1: The Strange Family of Things’ and chapter 2: ‘The Spirit of Lesser Animals’).  It is possible to read the whole novel as one man’s quest for the perfect horse – who arrives about half way through the book ‘inbred to perfection‘ – but I can’t imagine anyone wishing to so limit themselves.  As the layers build up, the legacy of slavery overshadowing the rhetoric of evolutionary superiority and ideas of taming and breaking applying to humans as much as to horses, it is a testament to Morgan’s writing that the novel doesn’t implode with its own cleverness.

With so much going on, it may have been inevitable that some characters and ideas work better than others (I think this may be why the word ‘ambitious’ is so appropriate to describe the overall effect).  The sincerity and skill of the novel however keep it on track and give it the momentum so demanded by the title and topic.  The novel sets a high bar for itself and, by implication, for its fellows on the Bailey’s shortlist.  I’m very interested to see what Morgan will write next, and what the judges’ final verdict will be on 7th June.
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I used to think I liked purple prose. Or at the very least, I felt like I could tolerate it.

Until I read this book. It seemed as though it would whiplash from normal, semi-prose-y chapters into these cringey passages written in second person. Toward the end of the book I found these interludes extremely tiring and hard to remember who we were even talking about if I'd set the book down and come back to it the next day. Part of this challenge, I think, was that I was reading this on a kindle as an ARC (very late, I know) and not a physical book. I might have done better with a real book, but it is what it is.

I went into this novel with very high hopes- I love broad-reaching family stories and have been borderline obsessed (though less so in the last five or so years) with the thoroughbred racing industry. It seemed like it had been written for me!

The story starts off very slowly, introducing a slew of unlikable characters from the get go. Henry's father was awful, and you get to see him blossom into the same kind of terrible as time goes on. Maryleen was an extremely underused character, in my opinion. She seemed to be the most interesting only to be written off by the author for the majority of the book. For that reason it almost made her return seem less than satisfactory (but don't get me wrong, I was thrilled to see her again). 

Then we meet Henrietta (really, Henry?) and I'm a little bit charmed because it seems like she's got potential. But then she turns out to be... extremely boring as well. She read as very flat, to me, or as if the author chose certain qualities of her personality almost at random instead of allowing her to develop on her own. Which, now that I look back on it, is basically essentially how her father wanted to handle his daughter. 

Oh yeah- incest warning (low blow at Kentucky, Morgan). One of my most hated topics in writing. This wasn't at all graphic, but it still was mentioned enough to give me the shudders. 

But Allmon. God BLESS Allmon. His appearance in the second half (?) of the book was like a breath of fresh air. Despite being an ex-con, he was easily one of the most relatable characters because he was written like a human being. I kind of rolled my eyes a little at his appearance though, because it was so obvious. Oh, the father of this prestigious farm has a daughter and also hates black people? Enter young black male who will undoubtedly hook up with the daughter and ""sully"" the Forge family line. Yawn. His entire arc was just explosive, though, and I found it the most entertaining of the entire book. 

Overall I feel like this novel was very overwritten and I would not call it 'the next great American Novel'. That's not to say that the author isn't talented, because she is. I just think that this needed to be edited a bit more- or maybe I didn't appreciate it in its true format. Either way, I was disappointed because I expected to like it a lot more than I did. 2-2.5/5 stars
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The Sport of Kings is epic in its ambition, perhaps in the same manner that a thoroughbred breeder and owner may work to produce the next champion. It's a gamble that has paid off for C.E. Morgan with her Pulitzer-nominated tome, though I struggled to see the continuity in some of the story arcs or to appreciate the author's sometimes sudden shift in voice. Nonetheless, this is a tale that I will continue to process for some time. I will wonder if I would have been brought to some of the same decisions as Henry, Henrietta, or Allmon had I their life experiences. I will wonder what elements of their stories contributed most to the culmination of their combined fate. I will wonder what decisions I make have that type of ripple effect on others within my circle. No doubt, we will be talking about the Sport of Kings for some time.
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