Maggie Stiefvater was one of my favorite authors to see at a panel at NCTE last year, where she was talking with Shannon Hale about world building and fantasy (I think!). I really love Stiefvater’s books, but I haven’t put one up here yet. I recently re-read The Scorpio Races, one of my favorite of her books, and thought it was a good opportunity to write a review.
The Scorpio Races is set on the fictional island of Thisbe, and it is the island’s mythology that is central to the story. Every fall, mythical water horses (capall uisce) come out of the ocean, large, fast, and dangerous. Brave islanders (or those with something to prove) choose a water horse of their own, and begin the nearly month-long process of “training” it for the annual race on the first day of November. But the water horses can’t ever really be trained. They are always drawn back to the ocean, and many riders are either drowned or killed as the horses try to get back to where they are meant to be.
Sean Kendrick has participated in the races for years, and he has a tendency to win. He is as bound to the water horses as they are to the yearly ritual of coming ashore each fall, and he rides the red water horse that killed his father in the races nine years before the book begins. It is on this horse, Corr, that he wins.
Puck is a teenage girl who ends up in the races almost by accident, entering only as a way to keep her brother Gabe on the island for a few more weeks. Without the grace time of the races, his plans to head to the mainland for work would have gone into effect faster than Puck would have liked. Puck lives with her older brother Gabe and her younger brother Finn in an old house that they care for on their own. Their parents were killed in an accident with a water horse years before. Sean and Puck alternate perspectives throughout The Scorpio Races, and are drawn together as the races get closer.
The use of the water horse mythology is incredible, and reminded me a lot of Margo Lanagan’s recent The Brides of Rollrock Island, which examines selkie mythology on an isolated island. The island in The Scopio Races, Thisbe, is a magnificent character on its own, one that Stiefvater describes from end to end. The book also has a very timeless quality about it. I remember the first time that I read it, I thought it had an almost medieval-setting. There is something about the way the clothing is described, the hard way of life, and the hierarchal structure of the island that made it feel much older than it was. But out of this timelessness are references to very contemporary inventions, and the two (usually separate) portrayals of time came together in one book. It had the effect of making me believe so much in this story, and believing in particular that it could happen anywhere.
There are so many heartbreaking moments in The Scorpio Races, but they are all tied up by mythology and adventure, all of it rolling off the coast of one very small island.