Review: The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. 2011. Review from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Every November, there are the Scorpio Races on the island of Thisby. Every year, people die. This is not a regular horse race; the horses are capaill uisce, water horses, horses captured from the sea. Horses that want to return to the sea; horses that can barely be tamed; horses that eat meat, including people who aren’t careful.

Sean Kendrick, 19, has won four of the past six years. He works near-magic with both capaill uisce and regular horses; but his life, and the horses he works with, and the capaill uisce he rides are not his own. Winning this race could mean winning his freedom — and the capaill uisce he rides.

Kate “Puck” Connolly is desperate. While raised on Thisby, she isn’t familiar with the races. She knows about the prize money; and when poverty and desperation threaten to split her small family, she takes a desperate gamble and enters the Scorpio Races.

Sean and Puck, strangers to each other, both wanting to win, both needing to win.

The Good: Killer horses. There are some reader who just need to know “killer horses.”

I am not one of those people. Sorry, but I was never one of those girls who went through a horse phase. So, in other words, for me, Stiefvater had to work for it to make me fall for The Scorpio Races, and fall I did.

What made me fall: the setting of Thisby. A small, isolated island except for the tourists who come for the Scorpio races and come to buy horses. The world where capaill uisce are real, and iron and bells and salt and circles can help tame them. A world where water horses kill and people view it as tragic and sad, but not unexpected. Thisby and the capaill uisce are from Stiefvater’s imagination (though based on the myths and stories of man-eating water horses), and so, too, is the time. It’s a world of cars but no Internet. It’s familiar, but slanted. Thisby is so real that midway through I began to wonder, half seriously, if I could visit.

Sean Kendrick. I have a new book boyfriend. Sean’s mother left for the mainland, as many islanders do; his father died racing. Sean works for Benjamin Malvern, a rich and powerful man who owns the best stables, the best horses, and the best capaill uisce, including Corr, the water horse Sean trains and rides and loves. Yes, loves; and this is part of the wonder of Sean Kendrick. He is a silent young man, known throughout the island for his way with horses and with capaill uisce, and he is a loner who does not realize he is also lonely. The connection between Sean and Corr is touching, especially considering that Corr is as dangerous as any other water horse and as capable of violence. The connection between Sean and Puck grows slowly (and thank you, thank you, thank you for a romance that is not love/lust at first sight but rather a growing attraction that is a surprise to both Sean and Puck, and where a simple touch is full of heat and passion.)

Killer horses. No, “killer horses” was not enough to make me fall for this book, but as I read Stiefvater’s writing, as I saw the damage inflicted, as I read about the races, as I huddled with Puck and her younger brother in a flimsy lean-to while water horses came closer and closer — well, I fell for them, in the end.

Puck and her brothers, Gabe and Finn. Following the death of their parents, these three (Gabe in his early twenties, Puck and Finn teens) have worked and struggled on an island with few opportunities. Gabe, like many before him, decides to leave for the mainland. This decision guts Puck, who cannot understand why Gabe would want to leave Thisby; why Gabe would want to live them. For most of the book, I hated Gabe with a passion that was pure and true and almost — almost — enjoyable in my self-righteousness. Puck and Finn are closer, and the interaction between these two, the sibling language and looks, was perfect.

The writing. Oh, the writing. Obviously, it conveyed the setting and time and magic; the danger and speed and racing; the island, with its vast spaces and small town interactions; and the characters of Sean and Puck, Gabe and Finn, and their neighbors. There were also the phrases and observations that made me nod or smile, like this, from Puck: “Part of me thinks he’s just humoring me, me a kid, him most of the way to man, but then part of me sees my hands in front of me. They’re Mum’s hands, not a little girl’s hands, and I know I’m wearing Mum’s face, too. I wonder how long it will take for me to feel as adult inside as I look outside.”

In case you haven’t guessed by now, The Scorpio Races is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

10 thoughts on “Review: The Scorpio Races

  1. I agree 100% about the romance. Sean is a wonderful character, and the relationship he and Puck develop is done well, with subtlety and care.

    As always, Liz, a fine review.

    Are you going to put together a list of all your 2011 Favorite books? (Or are they already all in one place, and I just missed it?)


  2. Not only did you sum up my thoughts about The Scorpio Races perfectly, but you somehow managed to capture the eloquence and almost poetic tone of the novel. Awesome review for one of my new favorite books!


  3. Yes. Yes, I hated Gabe. Something fierce.

    And you’re so right about Thisby. I wanted to go to there, too.

    There is nothing about this book that is not beautiful.


  4. Oh, you made me want to read it all over again! (And I was in the middle of it when I saw you at KidLitCon. I hope I mentioned it! I was so annoyed when the plane landed and I had to stop reading — but very enchanted with the book.) Yes, Sean would be a fabulous book boyfriend. (And, YES, what a refreshing romance!)

    Now, I did love horse books as a girl. So I wasn’t totally sure that my love for this book wasn’t playing off of all that. And it reminded me of Pony Penning Day in Misty of Chincoteague. But more of having a fast wild stallion like the Black Stallion books. It captured all of that and added danger and love and the threat of losing home. Such a brilliant book.

    Anyway, I’m glad to know it’s not just girls who love horse books who love this one! 🙂


  5. Yes, yes and YES! A gorgeously written and sublimely romantic read (who’d a thunk with killer horses and all) that just knocked me on my patoot with it’s awesomeness. I am SO glad that you loved this one too!


  6. Melissa, yes, I’m going to be putting together my Favorites for the Year, probably for next week if I can finalize it this weekend.

    Donna, thank you!

    Elizabeth, thank you!

    Angie, yet, by the end, well — I understood Gabe a bit better.

    Sondy, now that you mention it I did read Black Stallion and some of the Misty books and loved them.

    Michelle, YAY, we both love the same book!


  7. The setting and the characters drew me in also. Forget the horses (though she did make them incredibly creepy) but Thisby itself became this fascinating character in the book. There was just something about her writing that made this island come alive. I was incredibly impressed. I’ve only ever read Shiver by her and it didn’t do much for me. But this, THIS BEAUTIFUL STANDALONE (YAY!) shows what true talent she has and the incredible possibilities that are created when writers have to work within one book, making tight and fabulous character arcs that have to be resolved (somewhat at least) within one book.



  8. Sarah, I love that it’s a standalone, and it made the ending so much better knowing it was over. That said, I wouldn’t mind revisiting this world.


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