I was a horse fanatic who grew up reading all of Marguerite Henry’s books, My Friend Flicka, National Velvet, The Pony Pals, and dabbling in The Saddle Club. Pretty much since the introduction of Harry Potter to my life, I’ve read fewer horse books and more fantasy books and epic quests. Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races combined these two genres and gave me more than either in some ways. This story takes place on the fictional island of Thisby at an indeterminate time (though because of the mention of women’s suffrage movement I can place it probably somewhere between the early 1800s and early 1900s presumably off the coast of the U.K. for the capaill uisce are a British myth and the name is borrowed from the Irish. The capaill uisce or water horses are sea creatures that can come on land and take on more equine features and natures when they do, but they are believed to be faster and are more vicious, eating flesh and blood instead of hay and oats. Iron and red ribbons and bells and knots in their manes can all be used to curb some of the capaill uisces’ power and make them less menacing and more manageable, but none of these is all-powerful, and a capall uisce will always be dangerous.
Every autumn the bravest of the men of Thisby capture, train, and race the water horses along the beach, where the siren song of the ocean is loudest and the capaill uisce are most unpredictable and dangerous. This year—driven by poverty and a belief that running in or winning the race may change her circumstances—Kate “Puck” Connolly has entered as the first woman and on the first land horse to ever race among the capaill uisce.
Ostensibly this is a story about the races but it is more the story of the islanders and particularly the racers—particularly Kate and Sean Kendrick. Sean is the four-time returning champion who trains thoroughbreds and water horses to race and loves the mount from which his father once fell while racing. Corr did not eat Sean’s father, but he couldn’t save him either. Sean needs to win to be able to buy Corr and to leave the service of the stable owner Malvern.
Kate is a woman in a man’s role, but she sacrifices none of her femininity, none of herself in order to race.
In Kate, I believe Sean sees some of himself, the same love and understanding of horses, the same bravery. He reaches out to her, and the two form an unlikely partnership.
I have been feeling overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of romance in especially teen literature of late, and Stiefvater here snuck in a budding romance so subtle and so sweet and so understated that I forgave her and even rooted for the pairing. I don’t think that’s a spoiler only because of the pervasiveness of romance in teen literature which seems to dictate that if there is a male and a female protagonist in the same story they will inevitably get together. There’s a kiss, but gratefully there’s nothing more to make me reluctant to recommend this to younger readers. This will be a book I’m putting in the hands of the middle schoolers who are reading at a higher level without fearing the wrath of the (almost) most conservative parents.
Stiefvater pulled me in with her poetic prose, her love and understanding of horses, which for me was nostalgic—not only for the literature that I grew up on but also for my own childhood, much of which was spent horseback, loving and learning to understand horses.
Stiefvater relates to Thisby itself as a character and it’s hard to argue with her on that point; The Scorpio Races is an atmospheric book, one that makes you a part of the circles and relationships of its characters. It’s a difficult thing to describe if you’ve never experienced that sort of embrace and envelopment from a book. It’s a difficult thing to achieve, and a sense that is ignored or overlooked or slacked off by many writers. It was something my high school English teacher discussed in reference to Thomas Hardy and Return of the Native (which is not a book I particularly enjoyed, but it seems worth mentioning if only because this is the level of prowess I sense in Stiefvater—and if I didn’t enjoy my fling with Hardy it makes him no less revered).
I recognize that perhaps a great deal of this book’s appeal to me is nostalgic and personal, but it is nonetheless something different, something magical, and something subtle. I’ve already picked up another book of hers to see if that magic extends beyond what is nostalgic–and I’m hopeful that it will.
Stiefvater, Maggie. The Scorpio Races. New York: Scholastic, 2013. First published 2011.
This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.