The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Maggie Stiefvater first wandered across my field of vision when her novel Shiver began getting a lot of attention the same year I started book blogging. Five years ago, I was not, despite styling myself as such, as much as an omnivore as I am now. I was spending a lot of time “regaling” people with how Twilight descended into institutionalized werewolf pedophilia and viewing urban fantasy—especially urban fantasy romance—with deep, deep suspicion. So no matter how much good press Shiver got, I was determined not to engage.
And ended up depriving myself of five years of reading Maggie Stiefvater, whose The Scorpio Races made me cry in a Chipotle. This is why I aspire to be an omnivore in all things and especially in literature: you miss out on so much if you decide “oh, I don’t read young adult paranormal romance,” or “oh, I don’t read genre fiction.”
I decided to take a chance on Stiefvater, despite my earlier and deeply irrational avoidance of her, because of Ana. Specifically, because Ana described it as a mix ofThe Brides of Rollrock Island and Friday Night Lights and went on to sing its praises for examining the wants and needs of its characters with true devotion. (Kindness is entirely the wrong word here.)
But like the island of Thisby, the book’s imagined setting, itself, I think The Scorpio Races is different things to different people. For me, upon getting through the first few chapters, I immediately flashed back to all the Irish literature I consumed during my last two years of college, especially any of the interwar material, like The Last September. But Thisby isn’t dying, like The Last September’s English-controlled Ireland. Thisby is strange, wild, uncomfortable—equally able to be a place one is desperate to escape from or a home worthy of an undying passion. As Ana points out, the cappaill uisce, a particularly vicious sort of kelpie, are almost an extension of that. It’s a place where the old ways are still kept, right down to pagan community members coexisting with the Catholic Church.
And the most important, striking, and dangerous old way are the Scorpio Races, a race where men ride the capaill uisce. It usually ends in death for a percentage of its racers, but they’ll still go on for the glory of the ancient games. When Kate “Puck” Connolly enters the race as the first female competitor in the island’s history, it’s almost worse that she’s riding an actual horse instead of a cappaill uisce. However, Puck doesn’t want to make a point about women’s suffrage, as she states to a reporter at the end of the novel: she’s just trying to forestall her brother’s inevitable departure to the mainland.
That was my first inkling that The Scorpio Races was an emotional tour de force. (Which is a fancy way of saying, “My heart, oh, my heart.”) There is a romance in The Scorpio Races, but it’s far more about the various relationships Puck and Sean, the other protagonist and four-time Scorpio Race champion, have with the other people on the island. The island of Thisby is almost the third protagonist, as every character has a relationship with it that they’re negotiating. For Puck, it’s her two brothers. After the death of her parents, Puck has been trying to stitch her family back together, but they’re pulling away from her for reasons they can’t change—Gabe can no longer bear life on the island, while Finn, her little brother, is growing up. Her relationship with herself is also changing, as she grows into a woman without the hand of her mother to guide her. The Connolly parents are not conveniently disposed of; rather, Puck is still processing her grief and the idea of a life beyond her parents and what they left her.
For Sean, his relationships are with Corr, his cappaill uisce, and the Malverns, the rich family that owns the biggest stables on the island. Sean is the closest to the island, having developed a unique relationship with Corr that renders him almost docile—almost. Sean is always aware that Corr is, on some level, a monster. Watching Sean and Puck react to Corr’s vicious attack on a human late in the novel is a fascinating character study for all three characters. (Corr becomes a heartbreaking character in his own right.) The Malverns could have easily been cruel caricatures, but Stiefvater chooses to shade them. Owner Benjamin may be cold-hearted, but he loves his son even as he’s aware of all his faults; son Matthew is so desperate to prove himself to his father that he’s settled on Sean as representative of everything wrong in his life.
It’s this rich interplay of interpersonal relationships, heightened by the Scorpio Races, that makes the novel a stunner. Nobody—save, perhaps, Matthew—is all good or all bad. Watching Puck slowly come to understand her brother’s need to leave the island is just beautiful, as is the slow (if abbreviated) way Puck and Sean realize that they understand each other to the point of love. Plus, the novel is gorgeously written, from the descriptions of the island to the unique ways the characters express their emotions to the races themselves. And that ending—oh. Oh, my heart. Judging by that ending, I need to start on Stiefvater’s bibliography post haste.
Bottom line: The Scorpio Races is a rich look at the relationships its characters have with both each other and the forbidding and wild island they call home. Highly recommended.
I rented this book at the public library.