The Scorpio Races
Maggie Stiefvater's WOLVES OF MERCY FALLS trilogy was a grounded, compelling exploration of werewolf mythology. In her new book, THE SCORPIO RACES, she incorporates a much less familiar mythology gleaned from the tales of the British islands but made utterly her own.
Stiefvater's fictional island is called Thisby. It feels vaguely Irish, or maybe Welsh, and its culture is suffused with horse lore. Perhaps the centrality of horses to the island's people accounts for the island's old-fashioned feel --- the inhabitants ride horses both for pleasure and for transport, and they haul goods to town in horse-drawn carts. But Thisby is clearly not a bygone place --- the wealthiest man on the island, who operates much like a feudal lord, drives a fancy silver car.
The geographic and temporal fluidity of the novel keep readers guessing, as does its mythology, which will be unfamiliar to most readers. In addition to the ordinary land horses who live on Thisby, the island is surrounded by water horses, or capall uisce, bloodthirsty creatures who prey on the island's livestock, including other horses, and who would as soon kill a human as be ridden by one.
But that's exactly what happens each fall, as a series of races pits the island's ambitious young men against one another, riding capall uisce that they break and train themselves. For these fierce and violent animals are also swift and powerful, and the race combines both breathless speed and the very real possibility of death for these horses' riders.
The best of the lot is certainly Sean Kendrick, a young man who has won the race before on the fearsome water horse Corr. He's favored to win, but in order to do so, he must best his own demons of pride and bitterness, as well as his anger over his father's brutal death. Sean's utter opposite is Kate, better known as Puck. She's the first female ever to participate in the races, and she has her own reasons to enter on her comfortable, humble land horse, Dove --- both to overcome the death of her parents and to try to salvage what remains of her family.
THE SCORPIO RACES, as Stiefvater reveals in an author's note at the novel's end, is an amalgam of several different, little-known traditional tales. Although it's based in very old lore, the story and its mythology are ultimately the novelist's own: "I realized I didn't have to take the water horses at face value," she writes. "I could be as choosy as I liked with my mythology."
The result is a tale that seems both classic and fresh, and a plot that hurtles along like a thoroughbred horse at full gallop. The premise of the high-stakes races provides drama enough, but the growing connection between Sean and Puck gives the story a personal dimension that readers who loved Stiefvater's earlier work will find both comforting and compelling. Throughout, Stiefvater continues to display her talent with lyrical language and concrete imagery, resulting in an elegant tale that's as thrilling as it is timeless.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 9, 2011