TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:
You probably already know Maggie Stiefvater from her “Mercy Falls” werewolf series, which includes “Shiver” and “Linger.” She’s a phenomenal writer who is able to take otherworldly topics and give them grounded, touching depth. Maggie’s latest novel, “The Scorpio Races,” has already accumulated an impressive list of “best of” accolades, including one from the venerable New York Times. I had an advanced copy of “The Scorpio Races” literally forever, since Book Expo last June. I thought, “It’s a book about water horses that eat people. Yeah, not so much.” I was, I’m not ashamed to admit, dead wrong. It’s a book about people, an unforgiving land and its creatures, sacrifice, forgiveness, courage, family, and love. It is, in one word, remarkable.
What, you need more? Fine. :-p
Puck Connolly is the middle child in an orphaned family living on Thisby, a rocky, isolated island. Older brother Gabe is leaving Thisby for life on the mainland, abandoning Puck and her younger brother, the quirky, sensitive Finn. Puck and Finn decorate pottery for the local tourist shop, but without Gabe’s income, they’ll never be able to keep their heavily mortgaged home and its small bit of farmland. Faced with an impossible set of choices, Puck decides to enter the island’s Scorpio Races, in which capaill uisce (predatory water horses that emerge from the sea each fall) are raced against each other in a vicious, life and death game with a huge payoff for the winner. The water horses are aggressive, untamed creatures drawn, alternately, by the call of the ocean and their desire to feed on blood and flesh. So what will happen to Puck when she decides to race her beloved Dove, an ordinary mare who also happens to be her best friend, against these unpredictable, deadly beasts?
Enter Sean Kendrick, a nineteen year old orphan who has won multiple Scorpio Races on the back of Corr, a wild, crimson-colored water horse with whom he has an incredible bond. Corr is owned by the wretched Benjamin Malvern, Sean’s employer and owner of the largest stable on the island (and, incidentally, the mortgage holder on the Connolly family property). The quiet, steady Sean is a resourceful trainer with an intuitive understanding of — and a deep love for — all the water horses, but most especially Corr. When Sean rides Corr, it’s as if the two are one being, connected by a strange mix of respect, love, and fear. Sean hopes that by winning this particular Scorpio Race, he will finally earn the right to purchase Corr for himself.
As the races approach, Sean begins to admire Puck’s grace and courage in being (a) the only female EVER entered in the Scorpio Races, and (b) the only rider EVER to challenge the capaill uisce on an ordinary horse. The two become friends, riding together on the jagged cliffs overlooking the shoreline and sharing observations and warnings on the other riders. They also fall in love, but it’s not the cheesy, melodramatic deal that such love can often be in a YA novel. Like everything else in this extraordinary book, it’s quiet, subtle, and yet still heart wrenching.
I will reveal no more about the races or the ultimate outcome, other than to say that we want both Sean and Puck to win, which is an untenable position. Maggie has created two incredibly well-realized characters. Puck is rough around the edges and bit churlish at times, but she’s also brave, smart, and big hearted. Sean is stoic and strong, but he shares with Puck the same boundless love for a harsh, unforgiving land, a hardscrabble way of life, and the magnificent horses (both tame and wild) who share the island. The scenes with Sean and Corr, in which we feel the potent, magnetic connection between the two, thoroughly humanize both man and beast.
The secondary characters are also impressively shaded. Gabe is weak and cowardly, but we begin to understand why this young man must leave Thisby and his siblings to survive. George Holly, a wealthy, handsome American visiting for the races, starts off as a sort of patsy and emerges as a far more generous, perceptive man. And Peg Gratton, the local butcher’s wife, is a plain homemaker and a raging feminist / mystical horse goddess during the pre-race festival. Rock on.
Maggie also provides many evocative descriptions of the island, the rocky coast, the turbulent waters, and the sleek, deadly horses. The scenes of Puck racing across Thisby on Dove’s back, literally throwing caution to the wind, are breathtaking. Same with the scenes involving Sean and the surging strength of Corr as he gallops forward, torn always between the lure of the sea and his own deep affection for Sean. We even get suspense and terror, as when Puck and Finn must hide from a bloodthirsty water horse in a rickety lean-to during a raging storm. The writing as a whole is often beautiful and heartrending, filled with so many lovely passages like this one, when Sean remembers the first time he saw the capaill uisce:
[They] plunged down the sand, skirmishing and bucking, shaking the sea foam out of their manes and the Atlantic from their hooves. They screamed back to the others still in the water, high wails that raised the hair on my arms. They were swift and deadly, savage and beautiful. The horses were giants, at once the ocean and the island, and that was when I loved them.
“The Scorpio Races” is, without a doubt, one of the very best books I’ve read this year, teen or otherwise. If you can get past the violence — which is organic to the story and serves to make the water horses a viable threat — then I’d say this book is fine for older middle schoolers. Also, since Puck and Sean alternately narrate the story, this novel should appeal to both boy and girl readers. “The Scorpio Races” is a thrilling, emotional, stunningly crafted book that I absolutely loved. I hope you, too, will give it a try. Happy reading!