editor's choice



Rough Magic is the kind of book I devoured as a child, a rip-roaring, triumph-against-adversity adventure, set in a faraway, exotic locale, told by the real-life hero, who usually, 99 per cent of the time, was male. In this case, the hero of the story is actually a heroine … and, God, ain’t that grand.

In many ways, it’s astonishing that Lara Prior-Palmer, a seemingly naive 19-year-old girl, should enter one of the most arduous horse races in the world, and one with great historic resonance, on little more than a whim. And yet that’s exactly what she did. Without training, without knowledge, just a fierce competitive streak that carried her through.

As the author tells us early on in the book, the Mongol Derby is a ‘1,000-kilometre race on 25 wild ponies, a new steed for every 40-kilometre stage to ensure the endurance fell on the humans, not on the horses’. It’s based on the great Genghis Khan’s impressive postal system, established in 1224, which linked pretty much half the world through a series of horse stations and enabled his extremely hardy men to ride from Karakorum (Kharkhorin), the Mongol capital at the time, to the Caspian Sea within a matter of days. The modern-day derby takes place over 10 days in August and was, at the time that Prior-Palmer took part, limited to just 30 riders.

Despite missing the race deadline, the author, through luck, fate, whatever you’d like to call it, managed to enrol, landing in Ulaanbaatar, the modern Mongolian capital, to find that half of her peers were experienced endurance riders, ready to take on the gruelling up to 160 kilometres a day necessary to complete the race. Prior-Palmer, by comparison, was a relative novice. Rough Magic is her story.

On one level this is a strangely timeless book of olde-worlde privilege in which a young woman who begins her journey au pairing for a family with six ferraris in Austria, then, after being sacked, has the wherewithal to even consider entering such a prestigious, highly competitive race, without giving much thought to the thousands of pounds’ entrance fee or the other necessary costs. And yet it is more that that, Prior-Palmer’s charm and genuine adventurous heart shining through.

It’s a wonderful book – about dreams, about fortitude, about the sheer British grit (sometimes stubbornness, sometimes slightly delicious maliciousness in this case) that spur a young woman on to win the ‘longest and toughest horse race in the world’, totally against the odds. And in these tough, tough times, really, what can be more brilliant or hopeful than that?




Rough Magic | Lara Prior-Palmer| Ebury | hardback | £16.99 | June 2019

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For more information about the Mongol Derby, visit the website


Acknowledgements: Book text quotes © Lara Prior-Palmer 2019. This review is published as part of the Random Things Tour virtual book tour. Please check out the other participants. Many thanks to Anne Cater and also to the publisher for sending us a review copy – a beautiful book. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.




Also of interest: ‘The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone’; ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Permission by Saskia Vogel‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘The beauty of Tom Cox’s personal landscape‘; ‘Call Me Star Girl’;Falling from the Floating World‘; ‘Blood Orange’; ‘Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Dialogue’s brilliant debut; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’;RW Kwon’s The Incendiaries’; ‘Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets‘; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir‘; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

Select Q&As/interviews: ‘Meet Paul E. Hardisty’;‘Lilja Sigurðardóttir’; ’Tom Cox’; ‘Vanda Symon; ‘Gunnar Staalesen’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist‘; Gina Kirkham;John Fairfax’; ‘Ian Ridley’; ‘David Stuart Davies’.


This review is © 2019 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.





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