Friday, January 6, 2012

The Fast and the Fantastical: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Every October, the capaill uisce--water horses with a taste for flesh--begin to merge from the sea surrounding the island of Thisby. Every November, the Scorpio Races take place and riders attempt to control their deadly captured mounts long enough to cross the finish line. Some succeed. Others die. The somewhat stoic 19 year old Sean Kendrick is already a four year champion of the races but this year he's competing to earn his beloved capal uisce stallion--and his own freedom-- from his employer, the owner of the horse trading stables on the island. Kate 'Puck' Connolly has never wanted to ride in the races, especially not since her parents were killed by capaill uisce at sea a few years ago. But when her older brother declares his plan to leave Thisby and make his way on the mainland, Puck is desperate to give him a reason to stay with her and their younger brother, keeping what's left of their family together. So Puck enters the Scorpio Races with her trustworthy island pony as her mount, making her both the first female rider and the first to ride an ordinary land horse. But while both Puck and Sean are desperate to survive--and succeed--on race day, these competitors slowly develop a deep connection born of mutual respect and a shared love of the island. However, only one rider can win the Scorpio Races.
When I heard that Maggie Stiefvater's newest novel The Scorpio Races was going to be about dangerous, carnivorous water horses, I was intrigued and excited   When I heard Maggie herself speak about the novel, her inspiration, and the development of the story, I learned that it was about much more that fantastic mythological horses--and I was even more excited.  Fascinated since childhood by the pieces of Irish, Scottish, and Manx mythologies that describe various versions of violent, magical horses dwelling in the ocean, Maggie Stiefvater has been attempting to write this particular story for a long time.  She discussed her longtime interest and slight obsession with water horse legends and her multiple attempts to write about them when she visited D.C.'s own Politics and Prose Bookstore to kick off The Scorpio Races' publication in November.  She describes much of this process similarly on this page on her website.  Maggie is a very funny and very eloquent speaker and writer, especially when discussing the writing process and her personal journey of development as a writer.  When discussing the development of this particular novel, she noted that the piece never really came together until she realized that she adapt the water horse myth more freely and that this particular story was more about the island of Thisby and the relationship the characters have with the island than it was about the water horses.  And I believe that this very accurate observation describes the real strength of this book; reading The Scorpio Races is an absorbing experience that can transport you into a fully imagined and fully real world that manages to be simultaneously familiar and foreign.    

As Maggie discusses on her website, this novel is more about the island than the carnivorous horses (although they're also fully developed creatures).  Thisby feels very much like a real place with a clearly developed social structure, religious/spiritual life, and long held traditions, including a fully described traditional dessert.  I have always found Maggie Stiefvater's writing to be distinctly atmospheric; her Wolves trilogy wonderfully evokes the small Midwestern town and its landscape and seasons ground that particular supernatural romance in our own recognizable world.  The world of Scorpio Races   emerges even more clearly and the island is a character in its own right, equal in both value and complexity to the human characters.  By only a few chapters in, I wanted to book the next boat out to Thisby!  

However, the human characters, especially our narrators Puck and Sean, are also complex and well-drawn and their relationships with eachother, the island, their horses, and the supporting characters are equally interesting and well-crafted.  The novel is generally well paced and the final race itself is as heart-stoppingly exciting as any action scene in The Hunger Games.  There are occasional plot holes (supporting characters that appear and slip away, never to be mentioned again) but overall, the novel's otherwise rich characterization and world makes these flaws easy to overlook. 

For anyone who likes horse stories, adventure stories, romance, and/or fantasy, The Scorpio Races is a wonderful new read and a perfect book to curl up with on a snowy evening!


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