The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

First Impressions

When I picked up this book on the shelf, I was fairly nervous. Nowadays, pretty much anything I pick up in the teen section that entices me with something I love – primarily dragons and werewolves – ends with a useless female character who is far too concerned with romance to focus on anything of interest, or another boy and his insert-creature-here story. To think that horses were about to be dragged into the mess was rather disheartening.

Reading the inside cover didn’t help my concerns at all.

“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 choice. So she enters the competition – the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.”

I was certain I was about to read another teen romance with a brooding boy and girl who face “danger”, where both of them come out having learned nothing, sacrificed nothing, only had a pointless adventure which ends in the one true goal of every teenager: true love.

What I got was a story that was surprisingly touching, with love not just for a significant other, but for family and friends and even animals. Imagine that, a teen romance story where friends and family are important, and animals are treated as more than a mode of transportation. Shocking, isn’t it?

Style

The story is told through our romantic pair, Puck and Sean. I’ll admit, on my first read-through of the book, I was thrown for a loop by the writing style and could hardly tell the voices of the two characters apart. Both of them speak in first person present tense, which is weird enough. Combine this with Stiefvater’s short, simple sentences, and the book can be hard to get into. She’s a very subtle author, and it took about one hundred pages before I was able to really picture the beautiful landscape she describes.

Still, with passages like this:

“The next day is bitter and ruthless. The wind races around the horses’ feet and makes them wild. Overhead, clouds like ragged breath flee in front of the cold. There’s a gray ocean above and below us.” (346)

I was thoroughly in love with the writing style by the end of the book.

The descriptions don’t often go longer than this. Only the most important things are described, just enough to give a feel for the scene, before the character moves on. Although it isn’t perfectly stream of consciousness writing, it’s realistic in terms of things the characters would notice. In the paragraph above, Sean points out the things that matter most to him. He cares about how the horses act, and his attention is always focused on the ocean, both huge dangers he’s about to face.

Plot and Characters

Summaries of this book are misleading. It’s not action packed. The actual Scorpio Races don’t start until near the end of the book. The majority of it is subtle character development. If you’re into fighting and running and animal attacks, this isn’t your book. Although there are brief scenes of well written action, it won’t be worth reading through all 404 pages for about 50 pages of action.

However, there’s plenty more this book has to offer. Our protagonists don’t spend their time fawning over one another, and mentions of appearances are brief and are usually to portray a character’s emotions rather than swooning over beauty. Each of the characters has their own goal, and those goals are well thought out and fit with the established characterization, rather than being something tacked on to give a cardboard cutout some semblance of personality.

Kate Connolly, commonly known as Puck, is an orphan. Both of her parents were lost to the capaill uisce, large, predatory horses that live in the ocean. Puck lives with her older brother Gabe and younger brother Finn, all of whom contribute to the family as best they can. Puck’s household duties revolve around mealtime, shopping and preparing the food for all three of them to eat. Around town, she works with Finn making cookies and painting tea cups for tourists. Gabe spends all his time cleaning the rooms in a local hotel. None of the three complain about her responsibilities, which is a nice change of pace.

Trouble hits early in the book when her older brother has decided to leave their home, the fictional island of Thisby. Gabe is the only one who works full time, and Puck is unsure that she and Finn can take care of themselves. Gabe’s reasons are never fully explained, but it can be inferred that Gabe realizes that the rest of his life will be low income jobs that barely keep his family afloat and wants to leave to escape his responsibilities. In order to keep Gabe home, she enters the Scorpio Races, a deadly race of the capaill uisce. I’m not sure why, exactly, this prompts Gabe to stay. There are a number of possible reasons, and the best one is that he wants to be there to bury his sister in case of her extremely likely death.

Sean Kendrick, our male, is also an orphan. He watched his father die in the Scorpio Races, and races in them himself despite this. He races so he can feel alive, and throughout the book he is shown to be rather emotionless about anything other than horses. He has a gift with the horses, and knows a number of supernatural tricks to tame them that I’ll get into later. Thanks to this, he is able to work on a farm that raises the water horses, and also races under their name. He makes little as a farm hand, and the farm takes almost all of his winnings. However, Sean has been setting all the money he can aside so he can buy the horse he loves most, Corr, and leave the island.

The plot is mostly about the interactions between these two, but Puck’s relationship with her family and Sean’s love for the wild horses are also huge parts of the story. There really isn’t much to say about the plot without giving too much away. It’s about a girl trying everything to keep her family together, and a boy trying to start his own life. They meet and develop a relationship. Fairly straightforward, no real twists, but an interesting read nevertheless.
The characters are what really drive the story.

My favorite thing about Puck is her wonderful, intentional flaws. Right from the beginning, Puck admits:

“[The Connolly House is] Where we Connollys live. Because I’m one.” And then — I am still a bit embarrassed about this part of it, as it speaks to the black part of my character — I added, “And you’re not.” (7)

She’s proud to be a member of a family that has lived in the same area long enough that their house has a proper noun name. This established flaw actually means something to the rest of the story. Every time she confronts her older brother for daring to leave the family, it’s obvious she can’t take the time to hear his side.

Puck attacks him in every confrontation, and even when she hears Gabe’s explanation she doesn’t care.

Puck overcomes being snickered at behind her back when she enters the races. She faces the shame of everyone knowing her family is poor and pitying her for it. She finds creative ways to compete to increase her chances of coming out alive, and possibly winning. We see her train to race. We see her confront her family. Every trait Stiefvater says Puck has is shown, both good and bad.

Sean isn’t nearly so complex. He’s very quiet, and feels more at home with horses than people. For once in a teen book, the quiet guy is not socially inept or hiding a dark secret. He just doesn’t have much to say. Even further, his love of horses isn’t an obsession, and he treats the animals with respect. He is aware that the animals he rides are unpredictable, murderous, and frequently states that they are not to be trusted.

He, like many of the other men who discover Puck has entered the races, disapproves. However, rather than scoffing, Sean warns Puck about the lives that have been lost in the races, and advises her against racing not because he thinks of Puck as a silly girl, or thinks of himself as the manly protector, but because he knows Puck doesn’t live and breathe carnivorous horses like the rest of the racers. When he realizes she won’t back out, he takes the time to instruct her how to get out of the race alive.

It seems silly to say, but after seeing so many bad teen books trying to portray real teens and people, it stuns me to see one that actually pulls it off. I read this book and found decently mature older teenagers, who care about other people and want things other than romance and it just makes me swoon with literary delight.

Lore

Water horses, known in Celtic lore as kelpies, aren’t very common in fiction. Traditionally, they’re beautiful, powerful horses who lure children onto their backs and take them into the water to drown them and eat them. They usually have some sign to separate them from normal horses, either being green or having a seaweed mane or constantly dripping with water.

The capaill uisce in The Scorpio Races takes a large bit of lore, and changes it in a respectful but creative way. The water horses are more powerful and faster than their land counterparts, and are easy to spot by their carnivorous teeth. Riding one seems almost seductive, and makes the ocean “sing”. They’re happy to eat almost any meat, though they seem to be particularly fond of humans. Considering that humans have guns and cars and other unpleasant things, our flesh must be delicious for kelpies to take the occasional risk and come far from the ocean to get a taste.

The ways they tame the water horses especially fascinate me. Sean is shown pressing iron on the horse’s skin, which makes it shy away uncomfortably. Iron is fairly common in folklore for warding off fairy folk and other supernatural creatures. The lucky number seven makes an appearance when Sean knots the horse’s mane into groups of seven to calm it.

Stiefvater also makes it more real by having countless methods that don’t seem to work, or, at the very least, Sean doesn’t think so. Other races put ribbons on their capaill uisce, or cover the horses in different flowers and herbs. Some just believe that they can just use their strength and beat the horse into submission. I smiled a bit when I read about the ribbons and flowers. It reminded me of sports players who need their favorite underwear to have a good game. Though, the book quickly drew me back with the reminder that these pretty trinkets were likely to be ripped off as the horses attacked one another and thundered towards the finish line.

It was a good mix of the dreary, nightmarish myth from Iron Age Celts and the realism of horses and predators that really exist in our world.

Final Thoughts

The Scorpio Races is a beautifully written book with interesting characters, fantastic Irish lore, and several genuinely touching relationships. I bought this book two years ago in hardcover, and I’ve read it at least four times since then.

I adore this book. While it may not be for everyone, those who like a character-driven read will probably enjoy it. I’d recommend you give it about one hundred pages before you make your final decision, and take the time to appreciate the prose.

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Comment

  1. Finn on 18 June 2013, 20:54 said:

    This sounds great :D I always believe that good YA books are out there, they just have to be found. I’ll definitely be reading this.

  2. Fair on 19 June 2013, 14:32 said:

    I have to read this! I have to read this right now.

  3. Juracan on 19 June 2013, 19:26 said:

    Well that’s interesting. While I’m not really the type to pick up a book if it doesn’t involve some kind of supernatural ass-kicking, the premise of using water horses that are, you know, actually vicious, is rather intriguing. Perhaps I’ll pick this up if I have the time.

  4. sweguy on 21 June 2013, 18:00 said:

    A article with focus on some GOOD litterature. How delightful! I’m genuinly happy right now. Will most certainly look for this book in my own language as soon as I visit the book store.

  5. sweguy on 21 June 2013, 18:07 said:

    FOUND IT AT A WEBSITE! Gonna order it as soon as I get my paycheck :)

  6. Flurrin on 1 July 2013, 12:40 said:

    Currently reading and I’m loving it so far. Best YA book I’ve read since Brian Jacques passed on.