I’ve never read one of Maggie Stiefvater’s novels before, and I thought The Scorpio Races would be a good place to start. It is a standalone book, and I’ve always been a sucker for books set on beaches.
The setting here is intriguing and quite unique. It’s an island called Thisby that I pictured as being a lot like a British isle in the 1950s. It’s hard to draw a bead on when exactly the story takes place. There’s mention of old beat-up cars and chainsaws, but no mention of TV or phones. So I suppose the story could be taking place at any time between 1930 and 1980. There’s a lot of talk about tradition and ‘women knowing their place,’ which also makes me think it was set in the mid-1900s.
I suppose the murkiness of the era is part of the charm here, because Thisby is unquestionably part of a fantasy world. Its shores are prowled by carnivorous water horses called capaill uisce. For most of their lives, the capaill uisce swim in the sea, but in the Fall, captured water horses are harnessed and raced on land by the island’s bravest men. Racing these oversized, feral horses is very dangerous, and every year men are killed in the race. The winner walks away with an impressive cash prize.
Enter the two main characters. Puck is a young woman who becomes the first female rider in the history of the race. Her family is in desperate straits, and she wants to win that purse. But considering the fact that she’s never been around capaill uisce, and that she’s never trained as a jockey, she seems like an extreme long shot. Add to that the fact that she decides to ride a normal horse in the race (in other words: not as large or technically as fast as a capaill uisce, but more manageable to ride). The other character is Sean—a young racer and trainer who has already won the Scorpio Race several times in his short career. Definitely not an underdog, but he is living under the thumb of the island’s requisite crotchety millionaire.
Sean develops a fascination with Puck as he watches her train. She helps him realize that he doesn’t actually like racing—he just loves the bond he shares with his water horse, a red stallion named Corr. But Sean will lose his stallion forever if he cannot win this year’s race, and therefore obviously crush Puck’s own dreams.
So there’s the conflict. Two protagonists who are friendly with each other (aww, who am I kidding, you know they end up becoming more than ‘friendly’ by the end of the book), but whose aspirations are diametrically opposed. What happens? I was pretty pleased and satisfied with the resolution. So nice to read a fantasy book where you’re introduced to a world, meet friends and villains, establish a conflict, and then see it all wrapped up tidily in 400 pages. And a story about horses… it’s almost not fair, it’s like a story about a loyal dog or a sick toddler… you know eventually it’s going to pull at your heartstrings.
Another interesting aspect of the Thisby world: Even though it’s set in a quasi-modern time, there are still vestiges of a pagan past associated with the Scorpio Races. The riders tie knots and ribbons into their horses’ manes. They seem to cast charms through hand gestures and totems. And they can earn boons or evoke curses using the old gods. These beliefs aren’t explained too much, and there’s a nice ambiguity as to whether they actually work or if they’re just sporting superstitions. Also I have to admit I had a hard time imagining monster horses that could propel themselves underwater like sharks, or bite through a man’s neck in a split second. I know that real horses can swim, and that horses can definitely kill a person. I also know that there is a British tradition of mythical ‘water horses,’ including kelpies, but I was surprised to see an entire fantasy book dedicated to these creatures. But it was definitely a nice departure from the usual fantasy tropes of vampires or dragons or wizards.