Each fall, the tiny island of Thisby is overtaken by the capaill uisce, giant, bloodthirsty wild horses that emerge from the stormy sea surrounding the island. On wet nights, they roam the island, ripping farm animals to shreds. The culmination of capaill uisce season is the Scorpio Races, a life-and-death event where young men ride the wild horses to the finish lines as often as to their deaths. Puck Connelly, orphaned by the capaill uisce that killed her fisherman parents, is the first woman to ever enter the race, and if she wants to save her family, she has no choice but to win. Sean Kendrick is a seasoned pro who has managed to not only survive but win four races, only this time, for him, the race is about more than coming in first.
The intertwining stories of Sean and Puck, told in alternating chapters, paint a picture of the races, but also of life on the isolated island. Although the novel takes its name from the breathtakingly fast event, Stiefvater takes her time getting to the main event. There’s action, to be sure, but at its heart, The Scorpio Races isn’t an action story. The leisurely plotting allows Stiefvater to take time to build the relationship between Puck, who insists, against all odds, on doing things her own way, and Sean, a rare rider who sees the beauty of the capaill uisce along with the danger. It’s refreshing to read a fantasy romance that doesn’t rely on fate, destiny, or love at first sight to bring its characters together. Silent, stoic Sean and willful Puck especially, are engaging, relatable narrators. The large secondary cast, including Puck’s two brothers, a wealthy American tourist, and several adults on the island, is equally well-drawn.
The true stars of the show, though, are Thisby and the capaill uisce themselves. Stiefvater’s atmospheric writing and meticulous world-building shine. A few anachronistic turns of phrase (“starting your period”) drew me out of what seemed to be an early- to mid-twentieth century setting, and Stiefvater’s decision not to use a specific place and time was occasionally disorienting. These weaknesses, however, are overcome by lyrical writing and lush descriptions. Stiefvater imagines in vivid detail everything from the island’s long history with the water horses to the delicious-sounding November cakes that accompany the race festival. In some ways, The Scorpio Races reads like old-school fantasy; I’ve seen it aptly compared to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. The sense of place that pervades the novel, the engaging narrators, and the lovely relationships between the characters and setting make this a must-read for fantasy fans.
— Emily Calkins, currently reading Design*Sponge At Home
You may also like:
Latest posts by Emily Calkins (see all)
- A Different Light: LGBTQ Characters on 2013 “Best Of” Lists - December 27, 2013
- BEA trendspotting: YA Crossovers - June 5, 2013
- New faces, new places: National Moving Month booklist - May 22, 2013