Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

the scorpio racesIf I told you that the most exciting novel I’ve read this year is about man-eating water horses, and is actually written for the young adult market, what would you think?

I loved The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater so much I have read it twice in the space of a month. The first time I raced through it, devouring it, unable to put it down; the second time was a more leisurely read, appreciating the language, the characters, the nuances. I was swept into Stiefvater’s very convincing world of the island of Thisby, somewhere, it seems, off the Atlantic coast of Ireland.

For me the mark of a compelling novel is one that leaves you breathless at the end, believing wholeheartedly in the plot, the characters, the location; while I am reading it, I live in that world. Sometimes it takes me a few days to pick up another novel if one has made such a huge impact on me. The Scorpio Races is one of those books. It doesn’t matter that it was written for the teen market and I was out of my teens more years ago than I like to think about. A good novel is a good novel.

Here’s the official blurb on the novel from Maggie Stiefvater’s website:

“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. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.”

Both Sean and Puck  – well-developed, finely-drawn characters – tell the story in the first person, in alternating chapters. This works superbly as I don’t think the book would be as engaging if it was in the third person or simply with one narrator and one point of view.

Thisby as a place is believable. Windswept, stormy, isolated, and the chosen land for the capaille uisce, the water horses, to emerge from the surf in October. Leading up to the Races there is a festival which Stiefvater makes more realistic with the invention of November Cakes, the island’s sweet delicacy. They don’t exist in the culinary world, but Stiefvater kindly provides the recipe for her creation at the end of the book. I sense some inbreeding in some of the characters, and Puck makes an observation that the eyes of the tourists are much closer together than those of the island people. It all adds to the reality of the world Stiefvater has created.

The capaille uisce themselves are drawn from legend and mythology. Stiefvater’s animals look like normal horses, but prefer a bucket of blood to a bucket of grain.  (It’s a lovely touch when Stiefvater talks about the pong of the water horses’ manure. Imagine a dog turd the size of a horse dropping-!) They are responsible for death and violence; they kill men for food, they are apt to view normal horses as a meal rather than a mate. There is savagery in their portrayal, but Thisby is such a place that Puck and Sean speak of the water horses’ behaviour in a matter-of-fact way. These people are island born and bred; they have grown up with death. Having said that, the horses, in their way, are nicer than some of the humans in this book.

This is a book with timelessness – the action could have taken place any time in the last forty or so years. There are no mobile phones, no computers. Few people on the island drive cars. The mainland, which calls a siren song to young adults looking for work or something more exciting, is only accessible by a ferry journey of several hours.

Had this book existed when I was a teenager, I suspect it would have become my favourite – well-thumbed, read over and over again. Pony book lover that I was, this is unlike any pony book I ever read. I’m not sure that it quite makes it into the pony book category, but blurs the categories between horses and fantasy.

My verdict? Bugger the vampire books – read this instead.

(I read this book on Kindle from Amazon).

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