The Scorpio Races

Maggie Stiefvater
The Scorpio Races Cover

The Scorpio Races


Clearly, I need to start paying closer attention to Kindle deals thingies. A fortuitous instance of other people paying attention for me led to me obtaining a two-dollar copy of Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races. Things I knew about this book beforehand: It has 'Scorpio' in the title. Things I knew about the author beforehand: she called one of my friends "beardy fellow" at the Boston Book Festival. For two dollars, this is enough to go on.

The Scorpio Races turned out to be a YA fantasy about killer water horses, which is pretty cool. It takes place on a small island, geographically and temporally vague but seeming sort of midcentury British Isles-y, named Thisby. Thisby is a rough, rocky little place that is plagued by carnivorous horses that live in the ocean, and which frequently come up out of the ocean to eat sheep and sometimes people. Many of the islanders try to capture and sort-of-tame these water horses, called capaill uisce, and every November they race them along the beach. These races are called the Scorpio Races, and they are a big tourist draw, which makes up a big chunk of Thisby's economy.

Our dual protagonists are Sean Kendrick, a teenage boy who has won several previous Scorpio Races on a blood-red water horse named Corr, and Puck Connolly, a teenage girl who decides to ride in the races out of desperation. Puck is the first girl to every try to run in the races, and, predictably, a lot of people aren't happy about that. She also decides to ride on her regular horse, Dove, rather than try to tame a water horse. This also ruffles a lot of people's feathers. Sean thinks Puck is out of her mind to attempt such a thing, but he isn't threatened/offended and he also admires her bravery. Sean teams up with Puck to help her train and there is a bit of an Obligatory Romance because of course there is.

Puck's main antagonist is Benjamin Malvern, the wealthiest man on the island, who owns a large horse farm and is also the landlord for Puck's house. Puck lives with her two brothers, and they have been barely getting by since both of Puck's parents were killed by wild water horses, but they have fallen way behind on payments on the house, and Puck needs the winning purse to pay off the house or they will be evicted. Puck's secondary antagonists are all the dudes who are really put out about there being a girl in the races, and who keep trying to bully her out of them.

Sean's main antagonist is Mutt Malvern, Benjamin Malvern's son. Sean works for Mr. Malvern at the horse farm, training both regular and water horses. Mutt is both terrible with horses and generally an asshole, and he resents that Sean gets all kinds of respect around the horse farm and around the island in general (and from Mr. Malvern in particular) for, y'know, being good at what he does and winning the races and stuff. Mutt also seems to resent the fact that Sean has basically kept him alive through the last several races, a resentment that festers nastily when paired with denial that Sean has done any such thing. Mutt's desire to get in Sean's way becomes tunnel-visioned enough that by the halfway point of the book, he is willing to sacrifice pretty much anything to stick it to Sean, up to and including maiming his own father's prize horses, because of course wrecking your daddy's livelihood will make him super proud of you. Sean's secondary antagonist is Mr. Malvern himself, who refuses to sell him Corr at any price. Sean, inspired by Puck's nutty bravery, threatens to quit the races and the horse farm unless Mr. Malvern makes a deal—Sean will race, and if he wins, he can buy Corr.

Obviously I am not going to tell you who wins the race but suffice it to say that they cannot both win.

This is one of those books where the real main character is the location. The island of Thisby has a very strong, primal identity, and a great hold over many of its inhabitants. People are either irrevocably tied to it or they can't wait to get the hell out. Everything about the island is governed by its intense relationship to the water and the water horses—the beach, the tides, the storms, the dangers of emerging capaill uisce. In addition to the tradition of the races, the island has a whole body of traditions surrounding the races—from the decadently sweet November cakes baked only in Thisby (EXCEPT THE BOOK COMES WITH A RECIPE SO YOU CAN MAKE THEM YOURSELF AND THEY SOUND SO GOOD) (IT SOUNDS BETTER THAN QUICK AFTER-BATTLE TRIPLE CHOCOLATE CAKE EVEN, BUT I WILL HAVE TO MAKE SOME TO BE SURE), to the nighttime blood sacrifice to the pagan mare goddess when the riders declare their mounts (but at least nobody has to eat a horse heart).

While I am not a Horse Person and I feel like this book would probably be more captivating to people who are Horse People, Maggie Stiefvater does a great job of communicating Sean and Puck's attachments to their horses on an emotional/visceral level, so I was able to stay engaged and somewhat empathize with the characters' attachments to their horses. (Same goes with Thisby, actually; being trapped on an insular, isolated, rainy-ass little island with a bunch of horses and sheep and the continual danger of being eaten sounds like literally my own personal hell, but I bought it while I was reading.) I was kept guessing about how the race was going to turn out, and I thought the ending pulled it all together well. I liked that the book was a little bit sweet and a little bit funny and a big bit creepy and weird. While the bits involving the actual racing of crazy fairy horses that eat people were obviously what one would class as action scenes, I liked that a lot of the plot was a bit… quieter, dealing in gossip and money and tourists and domestic life stuff like that. I think Stiefvater actually hit the perfect balance between regular small-town drama and KILLER FAIRY HORSES, for maximum atmospherics and tension.

I am definitely planning on checking out her other stuff, hopefully soon. But first, I must make November cakes!

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