The island spools out beneath the moonlight. We gallop parallel to the cliff edge, and beyond it I see a flock of white birds keeping pace with us. Gulls, perhaps, soaring and gliding on air currents that send them violently upward as they get close to the rocks. This is Thisby, I think. This is the island I love. I suddenly feel I know everything about the island and everything about me all at the same time, only I know that it will go away as soon as we stop.
Teresa gave me this introduction to Maggie Stiefvater’s work for this year’s Book Swap, working on the assumption, I think, that a non-series book is sometimes a better place to start than a series. Her review of it is wonderful, bringing out all the good points of the novel, from the plot (not quite as predictable as it looks at first glance) to the characters (fresher than a magical horse romance makes them sound) to the writing (really pretty good, actually.) I don’t want to rehash what she says about this book, in which men (usually men, anyway) race carnivorous water horses — the capaill uisce — at the risk of their lives. Go read her review.
There were two things I particularly enjoyed about reading this novel. The first (though this may seem like more than one thing) was the excellence with which Stiefvater writes the material about the island — the horses, the legends, the cave paintings, the breathless races. All the reasons Puck doesn’t want to leave Thisby (and all the reasons her brother feels he must) are rolled into this: the bits and bobs in the shops, the smell of the bakeshop, the sand in her hair, the sense that when you’re born on Thisby you’re an insider of insiders. It’s beautifully done. Even the fact that the church is St. Columba, and there’s a real-life legend about St. Columba and a horse, is seamlessly put together: a calque on an older legend, exactly how it would really be. I thought it was glorious.
The other thing I enjoyed enormously was the growing parallel in my own head between riding the capaill uisce and the gentle art of falconry. There are people even today who hunt with golden eagles, did you know that? Not many, because eagles hunt over wide open ground, and because of the great danger to other people when eagles are looking for prey, and because of the enormous difficulty of training and managing an eagle. Does any of this sound at all like the work you might put into a magical predatory horse, risen from the sea and ready to eat your flesh at any time? Slata Baba, Dunnett readers? And yet — the joy of that partnership, and that flight!
I appreciate a novel of this kind where less is said and more is left for me to understand. This, for a book about carnivorous water horses, desire, racing, identity, capitalism, gender, and the various things home means to different people, left me mostly to draw my own conclusions. I found it well-written and satisfying, and it made me want to read more of Stiefvater’s work. Preferably a series.