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"The Horse and His Boy" is a bit of an oddity in the Chronicles of Narnia. It is the only book in which the main characters are natives of the fantasy world of Aslan (rather than being from ours), and is set in the era glimpsed in Chapter 17 of "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe".
Shasta lives in Calormen, a very Arabian Knights sort of place south of Narnia, full of beautiful palaces, dark skinned warriors, and citizens who quote their verbose poets and philosophers frequently. Shasta's lived all his life by the sea, treated cruelly by his "father" and made to do all the work. His humble life changes when a Tarkaan (something like a duke) arrives in town, riding a horse named Bree. Through an overheard conversation, Shasta discovers that his father isn't really his father, and that he comes from Narnia, a faraway northern country. Curious of his origins, he decides to run away to Narnia, and so does Bree (who is actually a talking horse, taken from Narnia when young, and forced to act tame). They meet up with runaways Hwin and her girl Tarkheena Aravis, (also headed for Narnia) and together they ride northwards, braving bustlings cities, sweltering deserts, and a wild lion that just won't leave them alone...
I struggled through this book when I was younger (fifth grade), even though I was something of a big reader. There's a lot of wordy dialogue, like the quotes of the poets, and a lot of political intrigue that a kid won't neccesarily appreciate, like the motives for Rabbadash's war and his flirtations with Queen Susan, which go on for quite a bit. I know I didn't really enjoy those parts back then, and kind of scanned over those chapters. There is much to enjoy though. I loved the landscapes. I could feel the heat of the desert, and the balmy, unpredictable climate of Archenland, and the bustle of Tashbaan.
C.S. Lewis was a devoted Christian, and even though it doesn't shine through as strongly as in the other Narnian Chronicles, there is still some allegory to be found. The theme, I think, is something close to Proverbs 16v9 in the Bible: "In his heart man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps". Shasta, Bree, Hwin and Aravis all decide to escape Calormen to Narnia, but it is Aslan who guides their way. Even if it they didn't know it, it was he who brought them together, kept them safe, and got them to where they were going just in the nick of time.
"The Horse and His Boy" was the fifth Narnian Chronicle to be written, and the third chronologically. Well, that's not techincally true If you were being really chronological, you'd start with "The Magician's Nephew", go on to "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe", stop halfway through Chapter 17 after the children become kings and queens to read "A Horse and His Boy", finish that, then go back to finish the "The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe", then going on normally until "The Silver Chair", where you'd stop towards the end of Chapter 3, (where "The Horse and His Boy" is told to Jill and Eustace), read "The Horse and His Boy" again, then go back.
But that's being REALLY picky, and probably a little obsessive. It wouldn't be much fun at all to read the series like that.
The only book you really need to read before it, I think, is "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe", which explains how the Golden Age of Narnia began.
I've been reading the series in the order that Lewis wrote them in, and again I've noticed a feeling of a looming end, a feeling that began with "The Silver Chair". The pieces of "The Last Battle" are falling into place. Apes being associated with deception, the introduction of Tash and the religion of Calormen, hints of Susan being too grown up for Narnia (she stays in the castle, acting like an adult, while her sister Lucy goes to battles), all elements very important for the Narnian finale.
Probably not an essential in the series, but enjoyable enough.