Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: ***** (5 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ***** (5 stars)
Age range recommendation: 13 and up
“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” That sentence appears twice in Maggie Stiefvater’s breathtaking novel The Scorpion Races. The moment I read it, the first words in the prologue, I could feel that this was going to be a good story; a dark story; a story that draws on something old and deep and scary. I knew it was inspired by the capaill uisge myths – vicious, man-eating water horses often called kelpies. And that all of my friends who had read it before recommended it highly. What I didn’t know was how beautifully Stiefvater would describe the island of Thisby, somewhere off Ireland, and the people who live there. I didn’t expect to fall under the water horses’ spell myself. I’m not really much of a horse whisperer: I think they’re cool and pretty, but sometimes it feels like they’re laughing at me. (One time a big horse stepped on my foot to hold me in place while he bit my shoulder, and it has inspired some distrust.) My own reservations were powerless in the hands of Maggie Stiefvater’s writing, though, because after a few chapters of The Scorpio Races I could feel why Puck and Sean devoted their lives to their horse-y companions.
The Scorpio Races is about this island where, every November, a deadly race is held on dangerous water horses. People capture the capaill uisge when they come out of the sea, the very act of which is the stuff of eerie seaside nightmares, and then try to train them into something they can ride. But the sea is always calling the horses, driving them to drown and eat the men who would tame them. As November approaches, tourists come to Thisby, more terrible creatures rise up from the sea, and the stakes get ever higher. Two teenagers, living very different lives, have lost parents to the capaill uisge. Sean’s father was killed in the races, long ago. Now Sean trains water horses for the richest man on the island, and is famous for his victories in the Scorpio Races. Puck Connolly is very much a Connolly, even after her parents died in a capaill uisge related boat accident. She helps keep her family together; the only girl in a trio of siblings which isn’t so close as it once was. She and her beloved horse, Dove, have to win the Scorpio Races if they’re to keep their home and independence. The odds aren’t in Puck’s favor. She’s the first girl to ever compete, and some people don’t think she should mess with tradition. And even while the odds have been kind to Sean before, animosity from the boss’s son, and some troublesome feelings for Puck, might keep him from winning this year. And that would mean giving up his dreams to own Corr, the capaill uisge who has become his closest friend. When Puck and Sean become close their determination will have an even higher cost, because not everyone survives the Scorpio Races, and only one rider can win.
Setting is usually the most important thing when I’m reading. If I can get drawn into the rhythm of a place and not want to leave, I’ll read the whole book no matter what. And Thisby drew me right in. (Not quite so fatally as the way capaill uisge draw humans into the sea and then eat them. But pretty close.) I loved Puck’s ramshackle house, where she and her brothers struggle to get by on their own. I could picture Sean’s regular haunts on the cliffs and at Malvern’s stables. I was afraid of the beach, but entranced by the shoreline all the same. I felt safe from the storm in the butcher’s kitchen with his wife, Peg Gratton, dispensing sharp wisdom all over the place. I’m sad that I’ll never witness the dark magic of Thisby’s Scorpio Festival, even though I’d probably turn senseless from all the colors, foods, people, and drums. The seasons, rituals, and traditions of the Scorpio Races are an ancient, integral part of what Thisby is. Puck and Sean even talk about how the island feeds off the blood – or bravery – of its people, and how they are as much a part of the weathered land as it is of them. It’s been rather autumnal weather where I am this past week, and thank goodness for that, because reading about all the rain and wind made me want to go fetch one of my sweaters from Scotland. The setting was just that good.
I’m pleased to report that the other aspects of this book were nearly as good as the sense of place. Puck and Sean were complex narrators with interesting, honest motivations. The story is told in alternating sections from each of their points of view. They were selfish sometimes and brave sometimes, and never one-dimensional. My one gripe would be that sometimes it was hard to tell whose narrative had just begun, but that’s partly my fault for forgetting to read the chapter headings as I fervently read. Their voices were similar, but that’s just because they shared such a fierce love for the island and for their respective steeds (I wouldn’t dare to call Sean’s Corr a horse, just as Puck can’t stand to have Dove called a pony). They were each proud in their own ways, but learn to take the world in stride a little better by the end of the novel.
There’s a little bit of romantic tension, but nearly all of the emotion in The Scorpio Races came from loyalty, family, and bravery rather than mercurial teenaged passions. That’s the sort of story I like to read: one which doesn’t require amorous moping to make characters interested in one another. So huzzah to that. Puck’s relationship with her brothers was also done well. She’s confused about her older brother Gabe’s sudden urgency to leave the island, especially since he’s been their main source of support ever since their parents died at sea. She also wants to protect her sweet and slightly odd little brother, Finn, who was one of my favorite characters. The townsfolk were lively and made Thisby seem real. People on islands, man. They’re my favorite sort of people.
For me, Maggie Stiefvater’s work can be either a hit or a miss. I love the Raven Cycle and am beyond excited for the next installment. On the other hand, I was wildly disappointed by Lament, and couldn’t get into the Shiver series either. I don’t know why she suddenly started writing books I love around 2011. It’s a happy mystery, though, and The Scorpio Races has solidified my belief that she’s become one of the best YA writers of modern fantasy writing today. This is a stand-alone novel with an ending that left me satisfied but wishing I could stay on Thisby longer. I’m kind of glad it’s not the beginning of a series, because I rarely have the time or presence of mind to follow through with sequels even if I love the first book. It was just the right length, with an excellent balance of action and character development, and beautiful writing to carry the story through the weeks of October, leading up to the races.