Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: The Scorpio Races

Title: The Scorpio Races
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Published: October, 2011
Publisher: Scholastic 
Almost every girl goes through a phase in her childhood where she is obsessed with horses.  I'm not sure why this is. I consulted the internet and found scores of lively debates on the subject.  It's a fascinating trend, but for my purposes, we'll just accept that, for whatever reason, generations of children experience a particular fixation which manifests in horseback-riding lessons, horse figurine collection, and the perusal of horse books.

As a girl, in the throes of horse-love, I would visit my library and scour the stacks for books with the blue "Horses" stickers on their spines.  I'd leave with bag-fulls of them.  Looking back, I realize that many of these books were paperback horse-pulp.  Sure, there are the well-known classics Black Beauty and The Black Stallion, which will endure on principle, but many of the horse books I read are now out of print, and deserve to be so. Although it's sad that these childhood relics have disappeared, I can't see myself pouring through them now, as an adult.  

So, I was overjoyed to find, a couple of years ago, a book written for a YA audience, that captured the spirit of childhood horse books, but with an unexpected, violent edge. The book is Maggie Steifvater's The Scorpio Races, and every adult who experienced childhood horse-obsession should read it.

 The Scorpio Races takes on the obscure folklore of capaill uisce — a variant of the kelpie — and brings the mythical water horses to a fictional island, set in an indeterminate time period.  This island is called Thisby, and its seasonal, misty climate and its emotionally repressed inhabitants evoke the feeling of a British isle.

Every November, Thisby sees tourists and spectators come pouring in to observe the deadliest horse race in the world.  The riders, island inhabitants, race on capaill uisce, carnivorous aquatic horses whose land habitat is exclusively Thisby.  

We have two narrators. One is Kate "Puck" Connolly, who decides to enter the Scorpio Races.  Not only is she the first female to ever enter, she will also be riding an ordinary horse.  Our other narrator is Sean Kendrick, who, at nineteen, is the world's expert on water horses.  He's won the races four times, on a horse he doesn't own.

One of the real strengths of The Scorpio Races is the narration.  Puck and Sean are presented to us as mirror images of each other — at once alike and opposite.  Likewise, the reader experiences the story in a fully-fleshed way through their dual narration. The shifts between narrators is not jarring, but both Puck and Sean provide the reader a unique outlook from which to view the story.

Stemming from this, the characterization is outstanding.  Steifvater approaches characterization indirectly, and the effect is such that the reader has a fully-fleshed concept of Puck and Sean from the outset, and this concept never wavers.  Sean is an amazing character, at once a pragmatist and a mystic.  His chapters are my favorites to read, especially when he interacts with his foils, the American George Holly and Puck.  Puck's character is slightly less engaging, but is strong, nonetheless.  Her character is self-aware, cross, and plucky.  She undergoes an amazing transformation throughout the course of the novel, where the reader sees her transition from child to adult.  The struggles and aspirations of both characters are conveyed in such a way that the reader will be on the edge of their seat when the race begins — only one of them can win.

Another strength of the book is its pacing, although it is unexpected.  Before reading The Scorpio Races, I assumed that much of the book would be occupied with the race itself.  As it turns out, the actual race takes up a minute portion of the book.  Mostly, the plot is comprised of the building of suspense, as Puck and Sean prepare for the race that could make or break their lives.

My last paragraph of breathless praise concerns horses.  In interviews, Steifvater confesses that the inspiration behind her book was partly her childhood ownership of two retired racehorses.  As a result of this experience, her equestrian knowledge really shows in The Scorpio Races.  Terminology is thrown about casually. Sean's expertise with horses feels utterly authentic.  What's most impressive, however, is the characterization of the horses. Truly! Steifvater is able to make two horses, Dove and Corr, become principal characters, due to their emotional scope.  Sean and Puck's horses are not depicted as docile servants or untamed spirits, but individuals who are, in turn, lazy, ill-tempered, content, joyful, violent, and loyal.  It makes for an utterly different horse book than you've ever read before.

In short, read this book.  I cannot recommend The Scorpio Races recklessly enough.

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