Book Review: The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

December 14, 2011 at 8:41 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , )

It’s nearly November, and on the Isle of Thisby that means two things: death and the capaill uisce. The water horses will flock to the shore, sea-hungry and blood-hungry, and men will try to ride them through the races for the chance of glory and a purse most of them can’t hope to earn in a lifetime. For Sean Kendrick, it’s about the capaill uisce themselves. Specifically about Corr, the red stallion with whom he has an uneasy alliance. He’s won four years already riding for Benjamin Malvern, and with his share of the purse from another victory, he could finally buy Corr and walk away from Malvern Stables forever. For Puck Connolly, it’s about home and family. If she can win, she can pay off the debt on her parents’ house, maybe even keep her brother from leaving the island. As they both stand against the dangers of the Scorpio Races, far more than the untamed capaill uisce, they build an uneasy relationship that has to stand on one painful truth.
Only one can win the races.

Sean and Puck share the narration between them. There isn’t always a pattern to it- it isn’t every other, or two then switch. Instead, it passes between them like the roll of the waves on the tide, easy and shifting and natural. Right away, their voices are distinct. After a few chapters, you don’t need the name at the front of the section to tell you who’s speaking. With their voices comes their personalities, clear as anything, and it’s amazing. Sean’s voice is solid, the words precise and slightly sharp at the edges, calm and deep but with a steady wildness that sneaks out in expectedly poetic phrases. The only times he uses six words when one will do are the rare times he’s speaking on something about which he’s passionate. Puck, on the other hand, is chaotic, frenetic, her words jumbling over each other and jumping very abruptly between thoughts. She’s honest about herself- to both herself and to other people- and aware of her shortcomings, but she’s also very much a piece of Thisby and that shows. Her wildness is out there on the surface, a visual representation of all that the island is. Sean straddles the land and sea, very much like the capaill uisce, but he’s the calm before the attack. Puck is the hunger and the fretting and the need. Puck’s took some getting used to but we settled into it as we get to know her, because her voice is simply a part of her.

I love the side characters, especially at their most enigmatic. Especially George Holly and Dory Maud. We never really get a full feel for them, but we know them. What they are most of all is very well paired. Both serve as a sort of-…well, not mentor, but an understated support. George is the American, a rarity on the isolated Isle of Thisby. He’s well put together, a businessman, but also a man who loves horses and doesn’t mind carrying buckets of manure. He’s laid-back and underspoken; he doesn’t waste words, doesn’t spend them where hints will do. In that, he’s very much like Sean, but unlike Sean, that natural tendency to taciturnity is tempered by charm and exposure to a more complicated- or at least more complex- world. Dory Maud, on the other hand, is sharp-tongued and half-wild, a natural extension of the island and its history. She can go along to get along but she can also stand firm, a woman who knows not only her own mind but the opinions of those around her. The relationships between Sean and George, and between Puck and Dory Maud, run parallel to each other, but each is characterized by the particular traits of those involved. Mutt Malvern is snarly and trying very hard to be misunderstood- when in fact he’s understood all too well- while his father is distant, calculating, and cruel as only a disapproving father can be. Finn Connolly is adorable and vulnerable but also has, deep in his core, the kind of strength that drives his sister. It comes out in different ways, much quieter ways, but it’s there nonetheless. Finn and Puck belong on Thisby- belong to Thisby- in a way that older brother Gabe doesn’t and that’s always clear. I didn’t necessarily want to see more of Gabe, because I thought he was perfectly spread out thin, but I wanted to see more of him. I wanted to see that he’d spared even a thought for what would happen to Puck and Finn, but we really never get that sense of him. Which, granted, could be quite on purpose. If that’s the case, if he really didn’t have that concern, it breaks my heart a little for Puck and Finn.

The capaill uisce are characters as strong as the humans. They’re magnificent. They’re savage and beautiful, completely and utterly untamed and untameable. They’re as feral as the ocean itself, as lovely and as dangerous. They’re blood hungry, desperate to return to the sea but equally thirsty for the hunt on land. The races aren’t just about who can ride the fastest or the best. It’s a test of tradition, of history, but also of manhood. The races are bloody and reckless, completely insensible, but they’re nearly a rite of passage. This is how to mark a man. Which, of course, is why Puck’s entry is so astonishing and ruffles all the male sensibilities. Corr is as strong and poignant a character as any other, never mind the two additional legs. He’s fiercely intelligent, questionably loyal, high-spirited and high-strung and high-tempered. In all sincerity, Corr is probably my favorite character, one who simultaneously lifts and breaks my heart.

I love the folklore and superstition that permeate not just this story but the entire island. They’re steeped in it, and these traditions and belief are a part of who they are. Those who stand outside of it- those who marvel or laugh- clearly don’t belong to the island the way the rest of them do, even if they’ve lived there all their lives. Sometimes the superstitions are part of the everyday routine- a way of tying knots without thinking, carrying bells or cold iron- and sometimes it’s a purposeful sequence of events, like taking manure to crossroads to mark a territory against attack. Most of these rituals aren’t ways to tame the capaill uisce, there’s no way to truly to do that, but to bind them, to hold them contained for a time. They’re rich and organic, growing straight from the island’s history and a mythology that weaves through Celtic lore and Church ritual alike.

The relationship that slowly grows between Sean and Puck- first into wary respect, then into friendship, and finally into something more- is one of the best I’ve ever read. It’s real, and ideally suited. He uses one word where six will do and she streaks up to the topic and then around it like foam spray from the tide, and between them they’re the ocean and Thisby, and as real as the tie between the two. If Sean is the human version of the sea horses, Puck is the human version of Thisby, and their bond is every bit as untamed and wild and essential. It takes both of them by surprise but they trust themselves with it.

This is a book like a riptide, that sucks you under the surface and into the foam where the capaill uisce wait. It’s a race where the race isn’t the point- it’s everything leading up to it, it’s the innate need to tame something that can’t be tamed and the wary respect and love for that some wildness that speaks to something deep inside us, something that we try to tame out of ourselves as surely as the feral creatures. This is a book to savor, a book to break your heart even as it gives you hope.

In other words, it’s an amazing book, and you should definitely read. It takes you into a world that’s equal parts beauty and savagery, where the people who inhabit it are as wild and deep as the island that forms their roots.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, out in hardback and ebook.

Until next time~

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