Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater

10626594The Scorpio Races
by Maggie Steifvater
October 18, 2011
Scholastic Inc.
409 pages
Source: Library loan

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.(Taken from Goodreads.)

Opening Line

It’s the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

My Take On It 
I think I have stated before how I feel about Maggie Stiefvater’s writing. Look at that opening line! Possibly the best opening line of a book, EVER. Anyway, Steifvater, alongside Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone), Lauren Oliver (Delirium, Pandemonium) and Cath Crowley(Graffiti Moon), has a voice that is often described as lyrical. She is brilliant at painting a picture with her words, and The Scorpio Races demonstrates that beautifully. So be forewarned: there are going to be lots of excerpts and quotes in this review. And it’s going be long-ish. Sorry, but with writing this good, I just cannot help myself:)

I read and enjoyed Steifvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls Series, I even gave 5 stars to the final book in the trilogy, Forever. That’s something considering werewolf books don’t rank very high with me when it comes to paranormals. And in a similar vein, I’m not what I would describe as a great lover of “horse themed” books. That’s a crappy description, but I can’t think of another way to explain it. What I’m trying to say is, I didn’t jump right away and read The Scorpio Races when it released, because the subject matter didn’t really excite me so much. I should have known better. It doesn’t matter what the subject is when it comes to Stiefvater’s writing. Wolves, faeries, or horses, she weaves such magic into her stories that I should have known to read it. Should have known I would love it. And I did. Here’s why:

Sean and Puck:  The Scorpio Races is a dual narrative, told in alternating chapters by the main characters of Sean Kendrick and Puck Connolly.  Both of these characters were amazing, and I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite voice. If I had to choose however I think I would pick Sean. He is quietly intense. He’s not exactly a brooding character, but he is mysterious and somewhat of an enigma on the island of Thisby, where the story takes place.  Here is a bit of Sean from Puck’s POV:

We fold him into the house and Gabe shuts the door because I forget to in my sudden glee. Gabe tries to separate Sean from his jacket while Tommy says something about the weather, and it’s quite loud for no reason at all, because it’s only Gabe and Tommy and sometimes Finn speaking. Sean, as always, manages to get by on one word where everyone else needs five or six. In the middle of all this, as Sean slips out of his jacket, he looks over his shoulder at me and he smiles, just a glancing faint thing before he turns back to Tommy. 

I’m happy for that smile, because Dad told me once you should be grateful for the gifts that are the rarest.

He’s definitely not one to spill his guts or make loud declarations, he is always subtle and controlled. Writing a character like that is tricky, because so much is left unsaid. But Sean is portrayed beautifully, and somehow, though he is man of few words, I felt like I understood him inside out.

Now, Puck. Whereas Sean is the strong silent type, Puck’s voice speaks loud and clear. She definitely has a stubborn steak,  but she is also passionate and compassionate. Puck isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in and she isn’t afraid to take risks for what she loves. She may question her choices, but she is determined to stand by them, win or fail. Here are some of Sean’s thoughts on Puck:

Now she looks at me. She’s fierce and red, indestructible and changeable, everything that makes Thisby what it is.

Both Sean and Puck find themselves in a similar life situation. Sean’s father was killed in the races and his mother retreated to the mainland soon after. Puck parents both disappeared boating, and all that remains of her family are her two brothers, Gabe and Finn.

Secondary Characters. Puck’s brothers are just a two of the wonderful secondary characters written into The Scorpio Races. Of all the co-stars, my favorites are Puck’s younger brother Finn; the American investor George Holly who befriends and councils Sean; and Peg Gratton, the wife of the island’s butcher who (eventually) encourages Puck to not give up and compete in the race. Though their roles are smaller, they are of no less importance. Through them we not only gain more insight into Puck and Sean, but into the Scorpio Races and the island of Thisby itself. Which leads us to:

The setting, the island of Thisby. Thisby is more than just the setting of the book, it’s plays a huge role in it as well. In fact, I would almost say Thisby is the third main character of The Scorpio Races. It’s Stiefvater’s remarkable descriptions of the land,  it’s people, the sea, and the races that really showcase this writer’s talent.  Don’t think an island can be written in such a way that it seems to live and breathe itself? I’ll let Steifvater’s writing argue the point:

This island is a cunning and secretive thing. I can’t say what it has planned for me.

Not sure if this was spoken by Puck or Sean, but no matter, it is a sentiment echoed in each of their stories.

I think that’s the mercy of this island, actually, that it won’t give us our terrible memories for long, but let’s us keep the good ones for as long as we want them.

Thisby is a fictional place, but if I were to try to liken it to a place on Earth, I’d probably choose Ireland. And Thisby would be nothing were it not for the fact that the magical water horses, the capaill uisce (pronounced copple ooshka) favor it and every winter begin crawling from the sea to it’s shores. These wild sea horses, when caught, are faster than the fastest horses.  And if given the chance, will attack and kill their rider or anyone within range. Malvern Stables (where Sean works as head trainer) not only breeds thoroughbreds, but also captures and trains the capaill uisce for the races, really the only generator of income for the island. Tourists and wealthy horse owners flock to Thisby each October and November to witness the bloody spectacle and show. During that part of the year, the tiny island transforms into a carnival atmosphere that slowly builds up to race day. Yet, jobs are few on Thisby and life is hard. For this reason, many of the island’s inhabitants choose to leave for the mainland. Puck’s older brother Gabe has decided that he will do just that, throwing her into a panic that culminates in her announcement that she will compete in the the Scorpio Races, hoping to win the large purse it promises.  Puck would rather risk her life than lose her brother or leave the island that she loves. This is echoed in Puck’s conversation below:

“Ah, that’s the way of this island, Not everyone can stay, or we’d fall off the edges, wouldn’t we?” Thomas Gratton’s voice doesn’t match his light words though. “And not everyone belongs to the island. I can tell you do, don’t you?” 

“I’d never leave,” I say fervently. “It’s like my heart or something.” 

Puck and Sean belong to the island, as Thomas Gratton says. I loved Steifvater’s descriptions of Thisby, from it’s beaches to it’s cliffs. I found myself wishing that a map of the island would have been included so I could trace the lines from Puck’s home to the Malvern Stables and down to the beach were the riders will race their monstrously beautifully horses alongside the ocean.

The Race. Like the island, the races themselves become more than just an event, they become something almost tangible. The races represent the livelihood of all of Thisby’s residents and hold the fate of Sean and Puck in it’s grip. Sean has won the race the last four years in a row and  Puck will be the first girl to ever ride. And she’ll not ride a water horse, but her own beloved mare, Dove. Wild and violent, the race is the ultimate depiction of man versus nature, and it most often ends in death. Here, Sean describes the race:

 Puck doesn’t look away from the orange glow at the end of the world. “Tell me what it’s like. The race.”

What it’s like is a battle. A mess of horses and men and blood, the fastest and the strongest of what is left from two weeks of preparation on the sand. It’s the surf in your face, the deadly magic of November on your skin, the Scorpio drums in the place of your heartbeat. It’s speed, if you’re lucky. It’s life and death or it’s both and there’s nothing like it. Once upon a time, this moment, this last light of the evening the day before the race–was the best moment of the year for me. The anticipation of the game to come. But that was when all I had to lose was my life.

I love that passage. In it I can hear those ominous drummers beating out a rhythm on the beach. I can see the wild water horses, saddled and  fighting against their restraints, decorated in colorful ribbons, bells braided into the manes. I can see the crowds, pumped and thirsting for action like the spectators at a Roman gladiatorial event.

The Horses. So for not being a “horse” type reader, I absolutely LOVED all the descriptions of the capaill uisce. They remind me in a way of kelpies (which often show up in books that feature faeries) and are monsters that take the form of a horse and lure people to their deaths (and a nasty death at that, they are drowned then eaten.) In Steifvater’s book, the capaill uisce are indeed magical for each winter they emerge from the sea and take residence on the island of Thisby. As I was reading,  the image of the horses rising from the sea reminded me of the Greek myth of Poseidon, god of the sea,  who when asked to create the most beautiful creature on land, fashioned the horse out of a breaking wave.

But these horses that rise aren’t loving and docile, in fact they are murderous. Not only do they kill a number of their riders before and during the race, they also crawl out on days when storms are at sea, and terrify the people of Thisby. There is a passage in The Scorpio Races with Puck and her brother Finn in which a water horse stalks their property, and trust me, that scene had me completely creeped out and on the edge of my seat as I read. But while those horses are scary and deadly, they are also strangely beautiful, strong and fast. And in the case of Sean’s water horse Corr, fiercely loyal. I loved Puck and her sweet, brave horse Dove, but I cannot begin to tell you how much I loved Corr. He’s still wild and frightening, but he is perfectly paired with Sean. Were it not for the beautiful relationship between Sean and Corr, I don’t think I would have loved this book as much and I know that I wouldn’t have connected with Sean’s character like I did. I never thought it would be possible, but Stiefvater and Corr have made me a lover of “horse” stories. Go figure.

The Romance. This review is getting out of hand- long but let me just touch on the romance in the book. Understated, yet perfect in every way, is how I would describe it. There are no steamy make out scenes or  speeches and outward declarations of love. And you know what? This book is better because of it. There is a slow building romance between Sean and Puck as they gradually get to know each other that had me holding my breath in anticipation. These two people are cut from the same cloth in so many ways, and their connection is strong, and feels very real. It’s probably the most subtle romance I have ever read, but that makes it no less powerful or beautiful. Sigh. I’ll never be able to put it to words so instead I will leave it to Maggie, the master of words:

Sean stands at the edges of the surf, looking out at the sea, and there is something curious and longing in his expression, like he, too, wishes to go leap into the ocean and be gone. I think, just then, that this is why Norman Falk asked for Sean to be there. Not because he could perform the ritual. But because Sean Kendrick, looking like that, is the races, even if no race was ever run. A reminder of what the horse means to the island– a bridge between what we are and that thing about Thisby that we all want but can’t seem to touch. When Sean stands there, his face turned out to sea, he is no more civilized than any of the capaill uisce, and it unsettles me. 

My heart feels full and empty with all the beginnings and endings. Tomorrow is the races with all their strategy and danger and hope and fear, and on the other side of it is Gabe setting into a boat and leaving us. I feel like Sean looking out over the ocean. I’m so full of unnamed wanting that I can’t bear it.

I love how Puck’s descriptions of Sean mirrors the island, the horses and the races themselves.

For a long moment I stand on the rocks, imagining where she would be, and then I climb back up the cliff path. The ground is dark but here, closer to the sky, the evening air is still dark and red. Elsewhere on Thisby it must be night, but here, we still have a whisper of the evening sun, far away across the western sea. I find her there at the top of the cliff, facing the horizon. Her knees are pulled up to her chin and her arms wrapped around them. She looks like she has grown from the rocks and dirt around her. Though she hears my footsteps her eyes keep searching the sea. 

I draw myself up next to her and look at her profile, taking no effort to disguise my attention, here, where there is only Puck to see me. The evening sun loves her throat and her cheekbones. Her hair, the color of cliff grass rises and falls over her face in the breeze. Her expression is less ferocious than usual, less guarded.

Is that some gorgeous writing, my friends? Wow.

The ending is amazing, the final race scene incredible, and I closed this book with a big, fat, smile on my face, knowing I had just read something very special. It’s a standalone (woo hoo!) with no plans for sequels, companion novels or the like that I know of. And while it makes me sad that there will be no more stories about Sean or Puck or the island and the horses that they love, I’m okay with it. I have my own ideas and thoughts about what those two are up to now.  I’m just thankful that Stiefvater introduced me to them in the first place. In case you haven’t figured it out: I LOVED this book. I wanted to hug it after I read it. This book would appeal to readers of any age in my opinion. And I would wholeheartedly recommend The Scorpio Races, or any book by Maggie Steifvater to anyone looking for a timeless and touching read.

5/5 Stars