What it’s like is a battle. A mess of horses and men and blood. The fastest and strongest of what is left from two weeks of preparation on the sand. It’s the surf in your face, the deadly magic of November on your skin, the Scorpio drums in the place of your heartbeat. It’s speed, if you’re lucky. It’s life and it’s death or it’s both and there’s nothing like it. Once upon a time, this moment—this last light of evening the day before the race—was the best moment of the year for me. The anticipation of the game to come. But that was when all I had to lose was my life.
For four of the last six years, 19-year-old Sean Kendrick has won the annual Scorpio Races in the island town of Thisby. His special connection with his horse, Corr, makes them fast and focused, even when surrounded by the predatory capaill uisce, the predatory water horses whose fierce hunger makes them monsters, as well as the best mounts a racer can imagine. Sean loves the capaill uisce, especially Corr, but he knows better than to trust them. It was nine years ago when he saw his own father die in the Scorpio Races, torn from Corr’s back by a grey stallion mid-race.
Puck Connelly lost her parents to the capaill uisce, but they weren’t racers. When the water horses are on the move, no one is safe on the water, and Puck’s parents were attacked by wild capaill uisce when they were out on their boat. Now, she and her two brothers are eking out a living, avoiding the races entirely. Until Puck gets the idea that running the race could keep her family together just a little longer.
My sister Kelly, who knows Maggie Stiefvater, introduced me to her books last year, urging me to try The Raven Boys, which I enjoyed but not nearly as much as I did The Dream Thieves. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should perhaps also mention that Kelly put me in touch with Stiefvater for a work project after I’d read the books, so we’ve exchanged a few e-mails about her writing career.) The Scorpio Races is actually Kelly’s favorite of her books, but she thought I’d like The Raven Cycle books more. But as I eagerly await the publication of Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Kelly’s love of this book, along with Ana and Jeanne‘s reviews, got me to give me a try.
Jeanne notes in her review that if you’ve read any horse books, you probably won’t have a lot of trouble figuring out how this story is going to go. And that is true. The set-up gives us a weary champion in Sean and a plucky upstart in Puck, the first woman to run the race. The champion draws resentment for being great, especially when his greatness eclipses that of his employer’s son. The upstart draws resentment for bringing change, not just in herself but in her choice of horse. The stakes are high for them both. Sean is running for Corr. Puck is running for her home. Some elements of the set-up are implausible. Puck’s initial reason for joining the race makes little sense, although a later development makes her situation more desperate and the race more important and likely. Her brother Gabe’s plans make sense, but his silence surrounding them makes him into a jerk—and a jerk I couldn’t believe in, when telling his family would be not just a courtesy but a practical necessity. So I had to get past some stuff. And I could.
The thing is, even within the not entirely unpredictable outline of the horse book with a dash of romance, there are a lot of things that could happen. The question of which of those things will happen is where much of the book’s magic lies. The race-day sequence is almost unbearable because no outcome could be wholly happy. The first-person narration throughout alternates between Puck and Sean, and during the race, the shift point of view keeps readers just enough in the dark about each of them when, in the chaos and blood, they lose sight of each other.
Thisby is a small community, losing people every year to the mainland, where there is more money and no monstrous horses. But home is not always safe, and neither is love. And what’s safe for one person is deadly peril for another. Each person has to know him- or herself and work out how to bring desire and need and talent together to create the best possible life. Both Puck and Sean are racing toward their futures, the sand flying under their horses’ hooves. They push their horses forward at a breakneck, yet they’re still figuring out what they want their destination to be. Much of this book concerns itself not just with winning a race but with knowing what the race’s goal is, knowing what you want and weaving your own desires with those of others. A complete win for everyone may not be possible, but the possibility is there, and so there’s a reason to race.