Wednesday, April 3, 2013

THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater - Book Review

[Note: This review was originally published on on October 19, 2011.]

5/5 - So delicious that I read until my eyes went blurry!

Title: The Scorpio Races

Maggie Stiefvater

Format: hardcover

Published: 2011

Young Adult, Fantasy

Scholastic Press

Landed in my hands:
purchased myself

Summary (from cover blurb):

Some race to win. Others race to survive.

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. But fate hasn’t given her much of a choice. So she enters the competition -- the first girl to ever do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

As she did in her bestselling Shiver trilogy, author Maggie Stiefvater takes us to the breaking point, where both love and life meet their greatest obstacles, and only the strong of heart can survive. The Scorpio Races is an unforgettable reading experience.


I am not a speed reader. Though I can be an endurance reader, should the occasion call for it.

So when I read 407 pages in 22 hours — without losing interest — I know it’s a good book. This is also why I take notes as I go: it all can blur.

After having written three reviews about Stiefvater’s work (Shiver, Linger, and Forever), I find myself in a bit of a predicament. There’s no doubt I was wearing my fangirl hat when I cracked The Scorpio Races, and her deceptively simple yet elegant prose is familiar comfort food.

So it’s lucky this book carries an entirely different world within its covers — it’s not like the Shiver trilogy at all. The Scorpio Races begins with a bang, and the first line grabbed me and carried me away, “It is the first day of November, and so, today, someone will die.”

I mean, who doesn’t want to read on?

Old world mythology and modern, black desperation combine, creating a tale of two teens racing (heh) against the odds. Puck and Sean are forced to place their hopes on the outcome of a competition involving the lethal, exotic water horses, and a handful of superstitions and charms to (maybe) contain their magic.

You must race to win, and to win, you must ride. Be willing to pit yourself against the defiance of a wild water horse, and their desire to break free and return to the sea.

Oh, and don’t forget their ability to kill you for the favour of being captured and ridden, because they’re friendly like that.

Even an experienced rider like Sean struggles with controlling such wild magic turned loose, as illustrated by his encounter with a piebald mare:

All of a sudden she smells overwhelmingly of the sea. Not of the beach, which is what most people think is the odor of the sea. Not of seaweed, or of salt, but of your head beneath the surface, breathing water, lungs full of the ocean. The iron has no effect as we pelt toward the water.

My fingers work through her mane, tying knots in threes and sevens. I sing in her ear, and all the while my inside hand turns her in smaller and smaller circles, each one away from the water. Nothing is sure.

As we charge across the sand, the magic in her calls to me, insidious. [...] Lulling me to trust. Compelling me to join her in the sea. It’s only a decade of riding dozens of water horses that allows me to remember myself.

And only barely.

Everything in me says to abandon the struggle. Fly with her into the water.

Threes. Sevens. Iron across my palm.
I whisper: “You will not be the one to drown me."

Along with the struggle of stubborn human versus deadly magic, there is what I like to think of as Stiefvater’s trademark quiet, naturally evolving romance. Her well-built characters allow readers to sense multiple contexts within the simplest of sentences. We know how the characters think, and therefore the deceptively plain language sings with hidden meaning. It’s what I love most about Stiefvater’s writing.

One problem I have with The Scorpio Races is my inability to concretely nail down setting. An island. Thisby, for certain. It feels Irish, and capall uisce, the term for water horse, stems from a mélange of several legends (Manx, Irish, and Scottish, so says the Author’s Note).

That said, it could be an island anywhere with a heavily influenced Irish background. The Atlantic is mentioned. It could be the Canada’s East coast. Time period? At first I thought contemporary, then as the story progressed, hints came that it was earlier.

Electricity, but not much (it doesn’t help that Puck’s family is poor and lacking in most everything others would take for granted). Also, language — which could be explained away by geography and idiosyncratic rural speech patterns. Then the American, George Holly, shows himself, with marking terminology. And later, a reporter with a flash bulb photographer and mention of the women’s suffrage movement. The 1920s? I give up.

As a regular reader, I’m fine with the vagueness, and the charm of Thisby means more than nailing down a time and place. I’m immersed in the island’s world, and that’s what matters. I mention this issue only because it kept cropping up in my review notes as I moved through the narrative. I’m more than willing to disregard this nitpick and enjoy the finer parts of the story told.

If you’ve been interested in seeing what Stiefvater’s about without delving into a three-book contract before you’re ready, try The Scorpio Races. It’s a mesh of myth, magic, and desperation.

And it stands alone.

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