Book Review: The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Although I love Maggie Stiefvater’s writing, I put off reading her newest book, The Scorpio Races, because even the premise had me a little confused.

Based on the legends of the eich uisce — the Celtic water horse — The Scorpio Races take place on the tiny, fictional island of Thisby. Each November, water horses emerge from the black ocean and gallop the beach beneath the cliffs of Thisby. And each November, men capture these horses for a thrilling and deadly race.

Both Sean Kendrick, four time champion, and Kate “Puck” Connolly, newcomer to the races, will ride this year, and both of them have more to gain — or lose — than in any previous year. But only one can win.

But after meeting Stiefvater in person at Houston’s recent Teen Book Con, and being reminded of how much I appreciate her brilliance and great spirit, I decided to give The Scorpio Races a try.

It is absolutely her best book yet.

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Certain things about the setting of The Scorpio Races are purposely unclear – though Stiefvater names the fictional island Thisby, it’s only generally implied that it’s near Ireland, and though Stiefvater mentions things like cars and radio and the women’s suffrage movement, an exact date/time is never given. As another reviewer put it: The Scorpio Races takes place on “a geographically obscure and rather timeless little chunk of land somewhere near Ireland.”

For me, the vagueness in time and place add to the ethereal, mystic moodiness of the book. And it works well in sharp contrast to the clearly-defined characters, horses, and legend of the killer capaill uisce (pronounced “copple ooshka”).

Those clearly-defined characters include Sean Kendrick and Kate “Puck” Connolly – the main protagonists of The Scorpio Races – and others like bad guy Matthew “Mutt” Malvern, the rich American George Holly, three enterprising sisters in town, and more. No one gets short shrifted in The Scorpio Races. Each character is complicated, layered, and fully drawn.

And though at first confusing, the legend of the capaill uisce becomes clearer throughout The Scorpio Races, too. The horses have lives and minds of their own, are strong, powerful beings, and it becomes the greatest hope of daring Thisby islanders to catch and control these deadly creatures from the sea, if only long enough to race them down a stretch of beach.

In telling the legend of the capaill uisce, Stiefvater also tells the story of longing and loss, strength and struggle, power and hope. I found the emotional connections (and sometimes disconnections) in the book incredibly compelling, and my heart became fully invested in both the people and the horses of The Scorpio Races.

Stiefvater also skillfully weaves the magic of place into the story, because even though certain aspects of the setting are foggy, she creates a very sensory experience through her writing. I could hear, see, taste, smell, and feel everything about the island of Thisby – the wind, the sounds of the sea, the fancy November cakes, the dramatic cliffs and edges, all of it.

If there’s anything to give a reader pause in praising this book, it might be that it begins a bit slowly, and has a quiet, subdued feel throughout the book. I personally think about it more in terms of deliberate and well-paced, but I can see how others would want more action earlier in the book. The story does eventually crescendo to a lot of action during the race itself, but it requires some patience to get there. And the love story between Sean and Puck is quiet as well, told more in gestures and silence than passionate kisses or declaration of love. Me, personally? I reveled in the slow burn of Sean and Puck’s relationship and found my breath catch at some very simple (yet deftly written) scenes.

Ultimately, The Scorpio Races is a beautifully-written book about horses and legend and the sea, but is a decidedly solid, human story. It has moved into the realm of My Favorite Books, and in fact, the minute I finished it, I wanted to start reading it all over again.

*Note about the “genre:” Although Stiefvater is widely regarded as a Young Adult author, and The Scorpio Races is listed as appropriate for 14 and older, I have a hard time classifying this as a Young Adult book. While the content itself – with the exception of a bit of blood (these are killer horses, after all) – is entirely without controversy, the story has a deep, dense quality about it that makes it more mature and grown-up to me. I’m not sure younger members of the Young Adult set will be as engrossed with this story, though I think older teens and certainly adults will become fans.

**Disclosure: Amazon affiliate link included.

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