Review of The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, 2011
By REBECCA, August 3, 2012
Puck Connolly: Lives with her brothers and loves Thisby Island with her whole heart
Dove: Puck’s underfed farm horse, nota capall uisce like the rest of the Scorpio Racers’ mounts
Sean Kendrick: 19 year-old horse trainer who just wants peace and the space to train his own horses
Corr: Sean’s best friend, a capall uisce owned by his boss
Finn Connolly: Puck’s brother, sensitive and hopeful
Gabe Connolly: Puck’s older brother, who threatens to leave the island
Every November, on the shores of Thisby Island, men race the wild horses that rise up from the toiling waters—only one man may win, but many may die, bloodied and broken by their mounts, or dragged under the water with them, unable to resist their otherworldly call. Sean Kendrick is the returning champion of the Scorpio Races, and there is every reason to believe he’ll win again this year. Until something unthinkable happens on Thisby Island: Puck Connolly enters the race—the first woman ever to do so—and although they barely know each other, she and Sean are soon forced to sacrifice everything to pursue the one thing they each desire.
First, a confession: I read The Scorpio Races nearly five months ago and I have avoided writing about it because I loved the book so much that I knew no review I wrote could express my feelings about it. But, in case there are people who haven’t gotten around to reading The Scorpio Races yet, I feel so strongly that you should deny yourself the great pleasure no longer that I’m sucking it up and slapping together what I hope will be a review not quite so tear-sodden as the library copy of the book I read (apologies, Free Library of Philadelphia patrons: I cried my face off on that book).
Ahem. Now, then. I read Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver a few years ago and although I liked the concept and thought the prose was lovely, the story wasn’t really my speed, and I lost steam about halfway through the sequel. I love beautiful prose, though, so when I heard Maggie Steifvater had a new book out—about bloodthirsty water horses, no less—I was really eager to see what this lovely prose stylist did with a story that was a bit more up my alley. My word!: even in the first few pages I was completely captivated by the prose and sucked into the amazing world of Thisby Island.
To put it clearly: The Scorpio Races is simply one of the finest examples of world-building I’ve read. Stiefvater’s touch is subtle and effortless as she evokes what read like only the relevant pieces of a capacious other world. This is fantasy at its finest: I felt as if I were reading a piece of historical fiction about real people who lived in a world slightly different than my own. Thisby Island has its own history and traditions; its own social mores and superstitions (though Stiefvater draws on Scottish and Irish legends of the capaill uisce—flesh-eating horses that come from the sea during storms).
I loved the way I felt dropped into the middle of it all. In the hands of a less talented storyteller, it could have felt info-dumpy, but Stiefvater simply writes as if we are all familiar with the place and time in which the story takes place, doling out details as we need them and allowing the context to reveal them slowly when we don’t (for example, rather than informing the reader that capall uisce is the singular of capaill uisce, Stiefvater simply uses each where it is appropriate, her very vocabulary enfolding us in this other world). And, oh, what a world.
“I am dreaming of the sea when they wake me.
Actually, I am dreaming of the night that I caught Corr, but I can hear the sea in my dream. There is an old wives’ tale that capaill uisce caught at night are faster and stronger, and so it is three in the morning and I am crouching on a boulder at the base of the cliffs, several hundred feet from the sand beach. Above me, the sea has made an arch in the chalk, the ceiling a hundred feet over my head, and the white walls hug me. It should be dark, hidden from the moon, but the ocean reflects light off the pale rock, and I can see just well enough not to stumble on the coarse, kelp-covered rocks on the floor. The stone beneath my feet has more in common with the seafloor than the shore, and I have to take care not to lose my footing on the slippery surface.
I am listening.
In the dark, in the cold, I am listening for a change in the sound of the ocean. The water is rising, quickly and silently; the tide is coming in, and in an hour, this incomplete cave will be full of seawater higher than my head. I am listening for he sound of a splash, for the rush of a hoof breaking the surface, for any hint that a capall uisce is emerging. Because by the time you hear a hoof click on the stones, you are dead” (27-28).
I won’t say much about Sean or Puck, except that they are exactly the kind of characters I love to read about: complex characters with material, emotional, and economic needs, desires, and challenges who are flawed but honorable. Also, it’s no secret that I love obsessoids and monomaniacs. Although neither Sean nor Puck reach an Ahabian level of monomania, its waves certainly lap at their feet.
what are this book’s intentions? does it live up to them?
I’ve read several reviews of The Scorpio Races that note two things that are, for me related: first, that the book feels really different from other YA fantasy that’s out there, and two, that the pacing is slow. Second thing first, for me, the pacing was perfect: I was sucked in by the details of the world and the incredibly interesting characters and beautiful prose for the first half of the book, and then sucked in by the excitement and suspense and drama for the second half (then I was reduced to pathetic, weeping, pile of tears at the end; but more about that later). I think the pacing (which I would call measured, rather than slow) contributes to The Scorpio Races feeling like a different kind of book.
I think also, though, that Stiefvater’s treatment of her characters’ desires is a large part of why The Scorpio Races feels different from many other YA novels. To wit: Puck and Sean are characters who have to work hard for their own survival and to support the people (and horses) they love. This means that they are much more focused on practical matters than many YA characters, and that there is little emphasis on friends or the trappings of school-bases sociality. What Sean desires more than anything else is for his capall uisce, Corr, to belong to him instead of to his boss. What Puck desires is to keep her family together.
What this means, above all else, is that The Scorpio Races isn’t a romance (in the genre sense of the term). Puck and Sean’s developing relationship is beautiful and deftly wrought, but it is not Romantic. Their bond is one of necessity and mutual determination—a restrained and clutching need, not a dreamy or lustful desire. In this way, Puck and Sean seem more like a tough old ranching couple than any kind of star-crossed lovers. And it’s stunning to see a teen relationship portrayed that way.
“Sean Kendrick opens the door.
He looks at me.
I look at him.
This close, he’s almost too severe to be handsome: sharp-edged cheekbones and razor-edge nose and dark eyebrows. His hands are bruised and torn from his time with the capaill uisce. Like the fishermen on the island, his eyes are permanently narrowed against the sun and the sea. He looks like a wild animal. Not a friendly one” (137)
As is now nearly a given with successful YA novels, The Scorpio Races has been optioned for a film by KatzSmith Productions, so that Hollywood can squeeze every last ha’penny out of young adults’ allowances (and, of course, my paltry wallet). Let’s hope they don’t completely f-ing ruin it by, among other things, turning it into an insta-love smooch-fest.
I finished The Scorpio Races on a plane. I was sitting in the window seat and a middle-aged woman sat next to me. Despite the fact that I always confess to crying on trains while reading, I am so not a public crier—and usually when crying at books on trains a discreet tear will slip from under my sunglasses and glisten unnoticed in the sunlight. While reading The Scorpio Races on the plane, six inches from a total stranger, I was crying so hard that tears were streaming down my face and I turned around 90 degrees so that my back was to my seatmate and I was facing the window shade. But I could not stop reading. I was all, “hey, Rebecca, just put the book away and save the last 50 pages for when you get home because otherwise this woman is going to call a flight attendant to have you sedated; there’s a good girl.” But I didn’t listen. It was like the other people on the plane didn’t even exist.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (2011). Daughter of Smoke and Bone is another rich, dark book that sinks the reader right into another world. Tessa and I have discussed its highs (Prague!) and its lows (angels!) at greater length here, here, and here (with bonus Viggo Mortensen)!
Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith (2008). No, I didn’t just pick this as a readalike because it has horses. Still, though, I’m not sure—not having grown up around horses myself—but it does seem as though horses inspire a certain kind of . . . reverent tone when written about by awesome prose stylists. A beautiful book about friendship, nature, and the things we value by the inimitable Andrew Smith.
Taming the Star Runner by S.E. Hinton (1988). Ok, fine, this one I picked kind of just because of the horses. I love S.E. Hinton! No, but, Travis moves out of the city to live with his uncle, who owns a horse ranch. He is captivated by the horses, though he knows nothing about them, particularly Star Runner, a beast who seems more alien than earthly being. And the girl who rides Star Runner is like no one Travis has ever know.
Procured from: the library, but then I loved it so much that I bought it