The plot is character-driven, so it doesn't sound like much: a small-time horse trainer, girlfriend in tow, arrives at a small-time track to run a few horses no one has heard of, hoping to make some quick dough. The girlfriend turns out to be much of the focus of the story, with the other characters revolving around her as she learns about life on the backside, the part of the racetrack the public never sees. The tale here is all in the telling.
Gordon has the lingo right. She knows horses. She knows horse people. She knows racing. She can do the voices of the various characters, who basically tell their own stories. Even if you don't know this world, you can follow along. She knows understatement, and how the compression of jargon can communicate a wealth of information in just a few words.
Gordon also knows how to use a symbol. She knows how to portray gathering darkness, all black sky and yellow light, so you know trouble is coming although you can't tell from which direction. She knows how to load her work for meaning. She knows how to present a character who might seem like a stereotype . . . until you realize you once met someone just like them . . . until you realize that you're face to face with an archetype, and there's nothing cliched about that.
Here are a few things you will want to know:
The Lord of Misrule was the king of medieval holiday celebrations. Servants, peasants, and other socially disadvantaged sorts drew lots for the right to preside over the winter revels. With masters changing places with servants and a low-life giving the orders, things were bound to be turned upside down for the duration of the party season. The usual rules didn't apply. The custom itself goes back to the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, and you know what that means: drinking, licentiousness, and all sorts of wild behavior. Other titles of this temporary king were the Abbot of Unreason and the Bean King. Remember the beans.
Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher born in 1632. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying Spinoza's philosophical position, thereby doing him a huge disservice: he was all about reason. His work laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment and all that it stood for.
The Mahdi is the redeemer of Islam. When the end of the world comes, it's believed that he and Jesus will set things right with the world. His name means "the guided one."
A pelter is a person in a hurry. It also means someone who delivers a succession of blows. I have a hunch this connects up somehow with the Trickster archetype, someone one who disrupts the status quo and has a playful side, too. (I've got the Loki/Baldur thing from Norse mythology, but I'm not sure it's enough of a connection. So this remains a hunch for now.)
When the hero goes on a journey, he has to go to the Underworld/Other World. All the heroes go there: Gilgamesh, Osiris, Odysseus, Aeneas, Buddha, Moses, Dante, and Aragorn, just to name some obvious ones. The only way out is through.
Last but not least: there are only two sorts in this world connected with pitchforks: horse people and the Devil. Take your pick.
Excerpt (Medicine Ed, the groom, is watching his charge run badly): They hadn't no strength even to shout his name. Trouble cotton up they lungs. Disappointment sit heavy on they heads. They can just about lift they chin and watch. It was no way in the world that horse could make it back in this race. That [jockey] Alice Nuzum so far off in her rating until she have to be thinking of getting there yesday. Or maybe tomorrow. Not today. Medicine Ed look up front. It's a whole nuther race gone on up there, the four horse trying to open it up in front, the one horse stalking him two lengths back on the rail and the three horse dogging the one horse at his elbow. And the rest of the field knotted up on the inside five, six lengths back, like soup greens hanging off a long spoon. But even if you want to lose Little Spinoza in this pack, you can't. He is lollergagging along ten lengths back of the others, dead last.