Review: The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

The Sport of Kings opens with a quotation from Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, establishing the book’s exploration of inheritance and survival instantly. Ostensibly, this is related to the horses that Forge is breeding in order to create his ultimate racehorse, but as the narrative unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that CE Morgan is using the Darwinian framework to explore a variety of social issues such as gender roles, endemic poverty, and the hotbed that is race relations in the South.

When his dictatorial father dies, Henry sees the opportunity to transform his inheritance from the corn fields that he is bequeathed into a horseracing farm from which champions can be grown. He’s obsessed with the idea of genetic inheritance too, determined to breed the ultimate racehorse, carefully cultivating the right animals in order to do so. Together with his daughter, Henrietta, they build their empire carefully, but the whole thing could be brought down with the arrival of Allmon Shaughnessy, a black groom with ambitions of his own.

Morgan doesn’t shy away from race relations and as such, the novel can be quite a harrowing read in places. At the beginning of the book John Henry Forge details why white supremacy must be allowed to continue to his son, the young Henry Forge. Given the current state of affairs in the US, The Sport of Kings could not feel more timely (it closes just before President Obama’s first term) and Morgan treats her characters with a clinical eye, Leaving the reader to pass judgement.

The Darwinian links can feel somewhat heavy-handed with quotes popping up throughout.Characters think in reference to it when anything related to some form of inheritance happens and it can get a bit repetitive, certainly for anyone familiar with Darwin’s work. That said, it’s not always a bad thing, often serving as an interesting way of explaining the world in which the Forges operate as well as the way in which such works can be distorted to fit horrendous ideologies without much effort.

A huge, sprawling piece of work, The Sport of Kings is one of those books to get lost in. It can be a tad uneven and does have a tendency to bludgeon you with its themes, but it is a story that sweeps you along, enthralling and horrifying in equal measure.