Monday, July 29, 2013

FANTASY: THE SCORPIO RACES, by Maggie Stiefvater

Stiefvater, Maggie.  2011.  The Scorpio Races.  New York, NY:  Scholastic Press.


Every November, people race their water horses in a race called The Scorpio Races, but these are no ordinary horses.  Violent and unpredictable, the horses kill people and animals every year.  One boy, Sean, is the reigning champion of the races.  He has a special ability with these water horses.  Puck (a girl) is an orphan who signs up to race her land horse in a desperate attempt to keep her biggest brother from leaving the island, since the winner earns good money.  She’s the first girl to ever race. Puck is drawn to Sean—and he is drawn to her—but there can be only one winner.

Stiefvater tells the story using alternating points of view.  The story is told back and forth from Sean and Puck’s perspective, first person point of view.  As the pace speeds up near the ending, we jump back and forth into their minds faster and faster.  Each time we change our narrator, it’s always clearly labeled, making it easy for readers to keep straight who is speaking.  Their voices are distinct, as are their motivations.  Puck is feisty and stubborn; Sean is observant, calm and confident in his skills.  Both are set-apart from those around them.

The book is set on a fictional island named Thisby that brings to mind Ireland or Scotland.  A man from America arrives, so it is mostly realistic as far as setting goes, with the addition of the capaill uisce (the water horses) as magical creatures.  Based on Children’s Literature in Action, “The fantasy genre includes books in which something make-believe or impossible happens,” which would extend to mythological creatures like capaill uisce.  Built like horses, they long for the water and possess magic enough to entice humans to ride full out into the water with them, drowning.  They are also carnivorous, and October is their wildest month.  However, the capaill uisce is the only true aspect of magic in this book, so it would be considered a “low fantasy” novel, not “high fantasy,” because it does not involve “a far departure from the reality of the present day” (Vardell, 206).  There is internal consistency throughout the story of how these water horses work and what is needed to “tame” them, (although most would say that they are never truly tamed!)

Young men from across the island take a risk and train one of the capaill uisce for the Scorpio Races.  The plot heats up as Puck first realizes she’s got to win the race on November 1st  or she’ll lose the house—and her big brother.   Considering that their family lost both parents to the water horses, she has more fear of them than most.  Those are big stakes for an orphaned teen.  Sean is the reigning champion, but he doesn’t race to win.  He races because he loves it and loves his water horse Corr, even though his father died in the races years before.  His mother left when he was a young child, so Sean has lived at the stable where he was taken in by the owner of the stables.  The archetype of the orphaned child who is the hero of the story is common in fantasy novels, and though it is not leaned on too heavily here, it does contribute to the storyline.

Sean wants the water horse that his stable manager won’t sell him.  Corr is one of the mystical water horses that most people live in fear of, but Sean “has one foot on land and one foot in the sea” (212, Stiefvater.) He notices Puck on her land horse, Dove, against his will.  She notices him as well.  There is a natural, strong conflict as their feelings grow towards each other, given that only one can win.  However, the stakes are raised sky high when Sean finally takes a gamble with his boss by quitting.  His boss reluctantly agrees that if Sean comes back to work and wins this year, he can buy Corr.  If he loses, he can never ask for Corr again.  It’s the only thing Sean has ever wanted…until Puck came along.  Now they both have to win the race in order to have the thing they want most in life…but they also want each other.  On page 328, Puck says explicitly, “The only thing is, the more I see him and Corr together, the more I think how unbearable it would be for Sean to lose him.  But we can’t both win.” 

Stiefvater’s descriptions are vivid and effective.  When Puck arrives for the races, she says, “In the night, I’ve shrunk and everyone else on the island has grown.  They’re all nine feet tall and men and I’m four feet and a child.  Dove, too, is a toy, or possibly a dog as I lead her through the throngs of people” (370). Stiefvater also knows how to build an atmospheric setting, mood and tone while building tension!

It takes everything in me not to whimper. The creature is black as peat at midnight, and its lips are pulled back into a fearsome grin. The ears are long and wickedly pointed toward each other, less like a horse and more like a demon. They remind me of shark egg pouches. The nostrils are long and thin to keep the sea out. Eyes black and slick: a fish’s eyes.  It still stinks like the ocean. Like low tide and things caught on rock. It’s barely a horse.
It’s hungry. (230)

There is no way to read this and not feel the wildness of the island, the danger of the water horses.  It makes Puck’s choice to race her land pony brave to the point of foolishness, perhaps.

The theme of freedom reverberates through the book.   The situation of a hired hand who merely works for a large corporation (in this case, a horse breeder) is addressed in the unfairness that while the groom may care for the horses, know the horses, love the horses… the horses are not his.  It is the plight that Sean wishes to escape from.  Sean wants to be free to buy his water horse and live by the sea in his father’s house.  Puck wants the freedom to ride in the race in order to save her family.  She is told she cannot ride, but Sean insists that she be allowed to.  And the question of taming the water horses brings a deep bass note of questioning to anyone who dislikes zoos, animal water parks, and circuses.  The same theme is seen on the last page, when Sean offers his beloved water horse the freedom to return to the sea that he loves.  These wild beasts are forced to obey through charms, cold iron against their skin and other forcible measures.  It’s disturbing to read sometimes.  Sean, however, doesn’t need those tools with Corr, making him easy to root for.

This book’s pace is on the slow side at first, but builds to a fast and exciting climax.  Teens who love horses will love the entire book.  The hint of romance will appeal to girls who liked Twilight, while the fierce female character of Puck will appeal to those who have less interest in romance.  Boys will enjoy Sean’s quiet, strong character and the racing itself.   There are several suddenly violent scenes, to be mindful of, but they are not as graphic as they could be.  It has wide appeal within the YA and MG market.


"Sean, the island's foremost horse expert, races Corr to win the money to finally buy the horse from his boss, Benjamin Malvern. Kate, aka Puck, races her land horse to save her family home from foreclosure by the same man. Both cannot win, and it is doubtful that both will survive. While there is plenty of action, conflict, excitement, and a heart-stopping climax, it is the slowly developing relationship between Kate and Sean that makes the book remarkable. Though different, they are both products of the island and have an intense love for Thisby that is not shared by all of the residents. Stiefvater makes readers care deeply for them, their desolate island, and even the monstrous water horses. The author takes great liberties with the Celtic myth, but the result is marvelous."-School Library Journal, Nov 1, 2011

"Only one can win the race and many are lucky to even survive, but Puck and Sean learn to lean on each other to survive the deadliest season on the island they both love. Fans of Stiefvater's Shiver (Scholastic, 2009/VOYA December 2009) will fall under her descriptive trance once again in The Scorpio Races as she draws the reader into Sean and Puck's captivating world of capaill uisce.-" Voice of Youth Advocates, Oct 1, 2011

"Both riders have deeper personal motives for wanting to win. Filling it with loving descriptions of wet, wind-tossed Thisby as well as exciting equine action, Stiefvater has created a thrilling backdrop for the love story that blooms between Sean and Puck. And in the water horses, based on mostly Celtic legends, she's created scary yet compelling forces of nature. A book appealing to lovers of fantasy, horse stories, romance, and action-adventure alike, this seems to have a shot at being a YA blockbuster."—Booklist, Setp 1, 2011

 Michael L. Printz Award Honor, 2012
The Odyssey Honor Award 2012 for Best Audio Production
Los Angeles Times Book Times Award Finalist, 2012
ALA Notable Books for Children, 2012
The New York Times Notable Children’s' Books of 2011
Publishers Weekly Best Children's Books of 2011
Amazon's Best Books for Teens 2011

The audio book version also received positive reviews.

  • Read Misty of Chincatigue and compare/contrast the paranormal/magical element of the water horses compared to taming wild—but non-magical- horses. 
  • Read other books by Stiefvater for an author study:  Shiver trilogy, The Raven Boys, Books of Fairie series.
  • Research the mythology of the Irish myth of capall uisge (note that she uses a different spelling than the actual Irish myth spelling), or the Scottish version, each uisge (which is spelled differently yet again).  Compare and contrast what changes she made (which are significant).
  • Have students create book trailers for it.
  • Illustrate a scene from the novel.

I read this book in a DAY.  And it’s not small, at 400 pages.  It starts a little slow, but I loved the measured unfolding of the relationship between Puck and Sean.  I also appreciated the tension and the masterful way the author laid out the stakes for each character, the timing of which only reinforced the overall tension of the storyline until the dramatic finish.  I do think the final race could have been extended further, but otherwise, it was fantastic.

Works Referenced, Except Maggie Stiefvater's other works:

Henry, Marguerite.  1947, 2006 reissue.  Misty of Chincoteague.  New York,  NY:  Simon and Schuster. 

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

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