The Scorpio Races

I knew this one was going to be good when a librarian I work with not only recommended it to me but also, unbidden, went and found a copy and pressed it into my hands. I was not disappointed.

The Plot: Maggie Stiefvater draws on a collection of Celtic tales to tell the story of Thisby, the only island in the world whose shores are home to the dangerous, carnivorous water horses.  Each year a violent race is run along the beach, with as many riders dying as finishing and a huge prize for the winners. Into the races step Kate Connolly — the first woman ever to compete — and Sean Kendrick — a four-time winner who has never had anything to lose.

The Author: Stiefvater is the author of the two Books of Faeire (Lament and Ballad) and the Shiver trilogy.  She is also an award-winning colored pencil artist.

Why It’s Awesome: You know that delicious moment when you look at the clock, and you look at the amount of book you have left, and you realize that sleep is way less important than finding out how it ends?  Get ready for that to happen.  I read the entire second half in one sitting, ending at about 2:30 in the morning, and it was so worth the coffee-filled haze the next day.

The Scorpio Races is dark and spare and intense.  The writing is so lyrical it could almost be poetry, and at its best points it has the feel of one of its characters: no wasted movement, every word full of intention. The race is naturally the climax, and so page-turning I found myself holding my breath.

Sean and Kate (also known as Puck) are a fabulous pair of main characters. Kate is wonderfully feminist without ever setting out to be: she wants to win the race to save her house, not to challenge a particular more.  She’s brave because she has to be, stubborn to a fault, wild and thoughtful at the same time.  Sean is a man pared down to bone, laconic and contained in both movement and personality.  He is saved from being impenetrable by his deep love of horses, especially his water horse Corr.  Over the course of the novel the two of them take separate journeys to same place: Kate from the child who wants to be taken care of to an adult with her own courage, Sean from the closed-off outsider to a man with something to care deeply about. The romance between them is one of the most intense and satisfying I have read in a long time, including some scenes that are steamier for their lack of action than many more explicit stories.

This is really a book about desire.  Not just romantic desire, but the desire to be free, the desire to prove yourself, the desire to travel, even the desire to stay in the place you love. And of course that special kind of desire that humans always seem to feel around horses, maybe because they are so much faster and more elegant than ourselves.  Every character in the book wants something fiercely, and Stiefvater writes so that you can feel the ache of it in your own chest.

The setting depicted is both vague and detailed.  It seems to be based on the idea of a North Sea island in the 1910s or 20s, with few cars and limited electricity.  Readers are never told what “mainland” it sits close to, but the island itself and the sea surrounding it are so vivid they are almost their own characters, with their own moods and personalities.  I finished the novel wishing I could travel there myself.

On a final note, Stiefvater has a knack for perfect names.  Sean Kendrick sounds like a hissing wave clacking two stones together, and Kate Connolly sounds as spiky as the heroine.

Why It’s Not Awesome: The only criticism I can level at The Scorpio Races is its pacing.  The book starts slowly, and it strolls along for quite a while before picking up the pace.  Once it does, it will draw you in completely, but you have to be willing to give it that chance.

The Final Judgment: One of those excellent novels that gets labeled YA simply because its protagonists are young.  A definite must read.

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