I like to read, a lot. Obviously. However, sometimes I come across a book that sinks its claws so deeply into my imagination that I am transported beyond the average realm of simply enjoying the reading of it, to a place where literally all I can think and talk about is the BOOK. I simultaneously always want to be reading it but don’t want it to end, ever, because there really is nothing quite like the experience of meeting one of your literary soul mates for the first time, is there? Well, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races (Scholastic Press) was one of those books for me.
This book first landed on my radar when my friend/teen librarian goddess/Printz panel…wizard?, Sarah Couri, reviewed it for the School Library Journal blog “Someday My Printz Will Come.” I will admit that I was surprised to see that Stiefvater’s newest was a contender for the American Library Association’s Printz Medal for teen fiction; I read her novel Shiver a couple years ago, and while I enjoyed it she didn’t really strike me as the the kind of heavy-weight teen writer that normally wins the prize. However, I have a lot of faith in Sarah’s taste in books, so I put it on my to-read list. It catapaulted itself even higher when it was named as a Printz Honor book and even higher when I had several friends approach me and tell me that if ever there was a book for me, this book was it. Sold.
The Scorpio Races takes place in an alternate reality where every year tourists flock to the island of Thisby for the deadly Scorpio Races, in which the island men race the mythical capall uisce on a narrow stretch of beach, fighting each other to reach the finish line before the sea calls the predatory water horses and their jockeys into its depths. The narrative focuses on two young characters: Sean Kendrick and Puck Connolly. Sean Kendrick, who lost his father to the Scorpio Races when he was ten, has won four times on the monstrous and beautiful Corr. Puck Connolly and her two brothers were orphaned when a water horse attack claimed both her parents in one fell swoop, and after years of trying to hold their family together, her older brother, Gabe, announces he’s leaving for the mainland. Puck, desperate not to lose what little family she has left, declares that she is riding in this year’s Scorpio Races. As the two young contenders train for the race their strong yet strikingly different personalities draw them together, but their growing feelings for each other are threatened by one sad fact: only one person can win the Scorpio Races, and it is very likely one of them will die in the trying.
How amazing is this book trailer?
This book hooked me almost from page one, and on that note, can we just pause for a moment and love the first sentence:
“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”
When it comes to hooking a reader, first sentences are really crucial, and as far as I’m concerned this is a really, really, REALLY great first sentence. Stiefvater’s writing has matured immensely; whereas the writing in Shiver was a bit too purple for me, the prose in The Scorpio Races is lyrical in its haunting descriptions of Thisby and its inhabitants. One of the things that I really loved about this book was how real and fully realized Thisby felt; the island was so…alive that it felt more like a character than simply a setting. I think this strength for me has been construed as a weakness by many other readers; whereas many have complained about the pacing being slow and drawn out, I felt like I was slowly being pulled more and more into the harsh and dramatic world that Stiefvater created. One could even go so far as to say the descriptive spell Stiefvater casts is akin to the magic of the capall uisce, who use magic to lure humans into the water only to devour them. The more I read the more I felt like I was being pulled under by this slowly-drifting, atmospheric work, and the more I wanted to drown in it. I didn’t mind that not a whole hell of a lot happens for the first 380 pages. I liked that the narrative took its time, because I was happy to feel the wind in my hair and taste the salt of the sea, to cling to the back of Corr or Dove as their hooves spit sand into the air; Thisby was a place that I wanted to be, and I didn’t mind spending a lot of time there to experience the story.
Stiefvater’s character development is also spot on. Sean and Puck are both multi-dimensional, distinct characters with enough nuanced detail to make them jump off the page. Their romance, while definitely a part of the story, is so slow and subtle so that it is not distracting OR annoying like so many romance plots are in teen books. It’s an earned romance (to steal from Sarah’s review, I couldn’t have put it better), and one that I totally bought because I was head-over-heals in love with both of them myself. Their relationship develops not from any sense of dramatic attraction, but rather from a growing appreciation of who they are as people. There is also a really steamy sex-metaphor ride on Corr that kind of gave me goosebumps just a little. Beyond Sean and Puck, a lot of the secondary characters are also really well developed (I wanted to kidnap Finn off the page and keep him with me forever, just as an aside). The detailed knowledge of even tertiary characters is reminiscent of the kind of intimate knowledge small-town (or in this case, small-island) inhabitants have of each other.
Plus, I mean, jesus. Predatory water horses. Horses are powerful creatures symbolic of male virility, and once you add magical predator to the mix the symbolism is off the charts and just, you know, cool. The seductive magic of luring humans into a false sense of safety before dragging them into the water for a snack was well-wrought and terrifying. Variants of the capall uisce appear in multiple different mythologies; since I have read about them before I felt I didn’t need an introduction to them, but someone who is not as much of a folklore/faerie nerd may have needed a bit more of an explanation. As a Horse Person, and not someone who just likes horses, it was clear to me that Stiefvator has felt the way that a brisk wind can make a tame horse wild; this book often felt like a love-letter to a life with horses, and I gobbled every word of it.
I’ve been going on for a long time so I’ll try to wrap this praise song with something other than adoration. While I loved the hell out of this book, I get that it’s not for everyone. This is not a plot-based book, and so someone looking for a thrilling read should probably look elsewhere. This is a character-driven coming-of-age story, an exploration of loneliness and the things that divide us from each other, a study of how the places we’re from can help form who we are. It’s something that Horse People will probably love more than non-Horse People; my friends who have read it really liked the book, but the Horse Love didn’t resonate with them in the same way that it did with me. I guess my biggest criticism of the book is that Puck’s reasoning for entering the race seems a little weak, but honestly I loved the story so much that I was willing to overlook it.
If you skipped my rambling for the final verdict, here it is: this book is outstanding and has easily earned its way onto my list of favorite books ever. It’s kind of like National Velvet, only with sea monster horses, and if you know how many times I spent pantomiming Velvet Brown’s courageous Grand National ride as a small child, you will know that I just paid this book an immense compliment. (And, yes, I do realize that National Velvet is also a book, but I have not read it 3,467 times, which is approximately how many times I have seen the movie.)
I really struggled to think of a musical accompaniment to this one, as the song that played in my head constantly while I was reading was the Greensleeves-esque theme to National Velvet alternating with Maggie Stiefvater’s incredible original composition in the book trailer, but some head scratching and a very well-timed facebook post from a friend guided me to Mirah’s “Cold Cold Water.” It’s atmospheric and dramatic and uses horseback riding imagery and drowning in cold water as symbolism for falling in love. Perfect.