Sunday, 28 December 2014

BOOK REVIEW: THE SCORPIO RACES BY MAGGIE STIEFVATER

 The Scorpio Races on Goodreads

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line.


Some riders live.
Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn't given her much of a choice. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.





In the author's note at the end of The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater recounts all the times she's tried and failed to tell variations of this story over the years: first, when she was in college. Then again, immediately afterward. Once more when her Shiver trilogy had been published. And finally in 2011, when the world was finally graced with The Scorpio Races. She notes how sometimes stories which take research are hard to tell, and sometimes the stories you want to tell the most are long in the making.

All the effort, all the research and all the failed attempts that converged to make this novel happen were well worth it. Because what Maggie Stiefvater won't tell you is this: in the end, it was a masterpiece.

No spoilers ahead. 



"It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die."

Thus begins a story of Thisby, a small island off the coast of Scotland, where the annual horse races take place each November. Christened The Scorpio Races, this is no ordinary competition. Rather than to ride common-variety horses the world has come to know, Thisby is the unique host to the Capaill Uisce, colloquially known as the water horses. The Capaill Uisce emerge from the sea yearly, and they make for spectacular and deadly mounts. Faster and more ferocious than average horses, the Capaill Uisce will just as soon murder a person as they will let one climb onto their backs. The riders who choose to capture, ride and compete on these water horses are therefore somewhat of a legend. Chief among them is Sean Kendrick, a four-time champion and the most celebrated victor to emerge from the tournament year after year. Opposite him, Kate "Puck" Connolly is the first young woman ever to enter into the races. Like Sean, this year Kate stands to lose more than just her dignity. Winning The Scorpio Races is the only salvation for both. So when Sean and Kate form an unlikely friendship, the stakes are even higher. Especially as the races are as competitive as they are deadly.

As always, Maggie Stiefvater doesn't write characters. Maggie Stiefvater writes people. The Scorpio Races is therefore every bit a story about a racing competition as it is a study of a small-town life, and in it, a study of the human condition as a whole. Through Sean, through Puck and through a myriad of characters who stand alongside them, Maggie has managed to paint a portrait of those desires which make us quintessentially human, and of a bridge between the wants and the needs we grapple with along the way.

And the horses are every bit as well-rounded as the people on the island are. This is a feat precious few authors can achieve. Without a hint of dialogue (these are not talking horses, walk away if that's what you're after!), the horses become a universe of their own, but one invariably intertwined with that of horse-riders. The choice of a horse says as much about a rider as any word out of their mouth. And likewise, a horse's acceptance of the rider defines the horse. Through beautiful relationships between the Capaill Uisce and their companions, Maggie weaves a beautiful metaphor of the unnamed wantings that we face in our lives.

"[It is] a reminder of what the horses mean to the island - a bridge between what we are and that thing about Thisby that we all want but can't seem to touch."

Don't expect a fast pace. Expect a psychological masterpiece. For as much as Maggie Stiefvater may joke about wishing to write fast-paced slick thrillers, stories such as The Scorpio Races are where her true brilliance lies. This is not a story about horse overtaking horse. This is a story about the stakes that go into it all, and about the reasons for competing each of the characters has. Neither Sean nor Puck are daredevils without a cause. Both Sean and Puck have much more than the races to lose. And these are their stories.

In the end, The Scorpio Races really is everything. The characters are people. The pacing builds up to an incredible climax. The plot is so refreshing, it is a story one never comes across. The writing is as beautiful and as atmospheric as I've ever seen. And the setting is absolutely timeless. The Scorpio Races might be set a century ago. Or they might be set in present day. In the end, it hardly matters. It is merely a timeless setting for a timeless story. Just one more facet added to make this story what it is. And what it is is a masterpiece.

As a sworn and hopeless fan of Maggie Stiefvater's work - The Raven Cycle in particular - I am biased. But I'll never regret being biased about this level of brilliance.







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