I have been worried about writing my review on the audiobook that I chose to listen to, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (Published 2011). I felt that without the book in front of me, how would I ever pour through the pages and remind myself of all the things I felt? How could I pull out quotes? How would I even remember what I read? When you’re driving down the road listening to an audiobook, it is difficult to write down quotes that you might want to share on a blog. Now, having finally finished the story, I don’t know if there are enough words to explain all the things you should know, and love, about this story.
On the tiny island of Thisby, The Scorpio Races are arriving quickly. Every year, the island turns into a tourist attraction in the month of October, anticipating November 1. On November 1, men from Thisby bravely ride their water horses, the capaill uisce (say it like cap-ul ish-ka) in the races. Men die, and that is nothing new. The capaill uisce are fierce, brutal, and their longing to return to the ocean from whence they came makes them even more deadly. What is new is the presence of Kate Connolly, known to her friends as Puck. The capaill uisce have left her and her two brothers orphans. Her older brother Gabe is threatening to leave for the mainland. In a desperate attempt to get him to stay, Puck says she’s riding in the Scorpio Races. A girl has never ridden in the races, much less on an island pony instead of a water horse. Battling her 45:1 odds, Puck decides she will ride in the races. The reigning champion, four-time winner Sean Kendrick is the man to beat. Working for a horse breeder named Malvern, all he has ever wanted was to buy his horse Corr, and win his freedom from Malvern’s grasp. Everything changes for him when he meets Puck. Together, they will train and work towards the same end goal—winning The Scorpio Races. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Puck and Sean, the reader waits with bated breath to find out who will be the victor.
Some fantasy novels are so fantastical that all you can do is hope that maybe at some point in your life you’ll get reincarnated into a world where Hogwarts letters do get sent and walk-in closets can take you to other worlds. There are other fantasy novels that are much more subtle. The fantasy in them is so slight that you can’t help but wonder—could it possibly be real? The Scorpio Races falls into this second category. The fantasy in this story is so believable, that I can’t help but think there is an island somewhere in the world where every fall, the currents push vicious water horses up to the shore. The only real fantasy elements are the horses, the small bits of magic that contains them, and the old Thisby legends. The magic involves tying knots into their hair, hanging bells, and putting plates of iron against them. This story is so believable that for the most part, it doesn’t seem like fantasy at all.
The fact that the story is told from alternating viewpoints makes it really interesting. As a reader, we always to root for our protagonist. What happens with both of your main characters want the same goal—to win The Scorpio Races? I found myself hoping that both of them could somehow win. Both Puck and Sean are wanting to win, not for fame, but to essentially save their livelihood. If Puck doesn’t win, she loses both her brother Gabe to the mainland and their house to Benjamin Malvern. If Sean doesn’t win, he loses his chance at freedom, and any chance he ever has of buying his beloved water horse, Corr. The water horse is the only thing that he has ever really loved.
Until Puck comes along, that is. I enjoying reading about romances about as much as any 26-year old woman, but I am so thankful that this was not just a love story about Puck and Sean. There is love throughout the story, motivating both of them. Puck doesn’t want to lose her brother Gabe, after already losing their parents. Her love for him, her love for her brother Finn, and her love for her horse Dove motivates her throughout the story. Sean’s lost his father to The Scorpio Races, and he refuses to lose his horse Corr. When Puck first comes along, Sean is as dismissive towards her as everyone else. He has a single-minded determination to win the races. What first draws him to Puck, though, is her love for her horse. There aren’t clandestine make-out sessions or any love triangles in this story. The love that grows between Puck and Sean during the story is one that grows from respect, to admiration, and finally to the fact that they cannot make it without one another. Puck is not a weak girl: everyone tells her that she shouldn’t run the races, and she refuses to be put down. She is cheeky, bold, and clever. When someone asks her why she always has to do things the hard way, her response is, “’I didn't know that it was the hard way when I started on it’” Puck is the kind of role model I would want for young girls, even if she did spit on Tommy Forks when she was eleven.
Listening to Sean fall in love with Puck was my favorite thing about this story. It is not because he fell in love with a girl and I needed a romance in the story. Instead, it is because he fell in love with something. Sean is the loneliest character I have ever known, and I just needed him to love something other than his horse. The races have always been what mattered. When he tells Puck that he is going to stay by her during the race, the two of them deliver my favorite line from the story. From a chapter from Puck’s point of view: “I say, 'I will not be your weakness, Sean Kendrick.' Now he looks at me. He says, very softly, 'It's late for that, Puck.” The moment when he realizes there are things more important than winning a race was the greatest moment from the whole story.
This story is one that has been a long time coming from Maggie Stiefvater. I strongly recommend you reading her post here about the creation of the story. She says that the idea came from Scottish, Irish, and Manx mythology. In their legends, they have water horses. She took this idea, and had always wanted to write a story about a tiny, rainy little island where the water horses came ashore each year. She actually tried to write it three separate times, but claimed that it wasn’t “Maggie enough yet.” Her third try stuck. Taking ideas from her own siblings and growing up in the country, The Scorpio Races was created. She says, “I wrote about why some people left and why some people stayed, the hardship and the beauty of it. I wrote about deadly carnivores that weren't villains and humans who were.” In this fantasy story of water horses and death, she tells us a very real story about the human experience. That connection to reality is what makes the best fantasy stories.
This book has won many awards, including being name a Michael L. Printz Award Honor (given by the ALA to honor the best young adult books) in 2012. The reason I chose it for this blog was because it was named an Odyssey Award Honor in 2012. The Odyssey Award is also given by the ALA (American Library Association) to honor the best audiobooks for children and young adults. I typically avoid listening to audiobooks that I think I am going to love. Audiobooks have a set time that you are committed to listening to it, and if I really like a book, I will normally finish it in a day or two. You can’t really do that with an audiobook if you don’t drive very far daily. I like to listen to a lot of children’s stories, because they are shorter and I will not get too involved that I refuse to leave my car. I should have known the effect that The Scorpio Races would have on me. I loved listening to the audiobook. When I was listening to the final CD, I sat in my car in front of my apartment for 30 extra minutes, because I simply couldn’t stop listening. I am glad that I listened to the audiobook for many reasons, the least of which is because the reader’s pronounced everything for me. I’m fairly certain I never would have said “capaill uisce” correctly on my own. Also, the emotion that the reader’s use when they are reading, along with their British accents, worked to suck me in so that I didn’t want to leave my driver’s seat.
The Scorpio Races is a fantasy story that isn’t fantasy at all. It is one of determination, motivation, and finding something worth holding onto in this life. (So go read it!)