Book review: Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Scorpio Races”

Way back in 2009, Maggie Stiefvater came out with “Shiver”, a young adult supernatural romance that came with an interesting take on the werewolf mythos. Not only did it land on the New York Times Bestseller List, its momentum also propelled the next two books in “The Wolves of Mercy Falls” series – “Linger” and “Forever” – to become similar successes.

Stiefvater’s latest work couldn’t be more of a departure from her werewolf trilogy. In “The Scorpio Races”, Stiefvater takes us to the fictional island of Thisby, home to the capaill uisce – or water horses – and venue for the dangerous but crowd-pleasing Scorpio Races.

Will Stiefvater once again be ahead of the pack with this new story and new mythology? Or will “The Scorpio Races” be left in the dust of the success of “The Wolves of Mercy Falls” series?

“The Scorpio Races” tell the story of Sean Kendrick and Kate “Puck” Connolly, two teenage orphans who are both finding that the lives they lead in Thisby are becoming more and more untenable.

While still reeling from losing their parents to the capaill uisce – the meat-eating water horses endemic to Thisby – Puck and her younger brother Finn are further devastated by their eldest brother’s plan to abandon their home and find better work on the mainland.

Sean Kendrick, on the other hand, longs to be free from the grip of Benjamin Malvern, the richest man on the island and his current employer. Sean wants nothing more than to purchase Corr, Malvern’s prized uisce stallion, and live peacefully in his father’s old house. But despite having won the Scorpio Races with Corr four times, Sean is still unable to change Benjamin Malvern’s mind and make him part with Corr.

Both Sean and Puck now look to the year’s Scorpio Races as their only salvation. The cash prize that awaits the winner is only big enough to fulfill one of their dreams – one of them will have to go back defeated and empty-handed. But when even the town itself seems dead set against them achieving their goals, will either one of them get a happy ending?

If any of Stiefvater’s readers had any worries about “The Scorpio Races” not living up to their experience of reading “The Wolves of Mercy Falls” series, then they should definitely put those to rest as “The Scorpio Races” not only has the same strengths that the earlier series had, it also builds and improves upon them to become something better.

The skill with which Stiefvater concocts atmosphere, used to such great effect in “The Wolves of Mercy Falls”, just ramps up to another level in this book. In Stiefvater’s capable hands, Thisby is more than just a backdrop for her characters – it is a living thing whose presence creeps into the readers’ minds and stays there like a heavy mist.

Stiefvater’s version of the capaill uisce – mythological creatures found in the stories of Scotland and Ireland – are also an inspired creation. They are an insidious and primal presence in the story, always keeping the reader on their toes even if they mostly stay in the background.

Her main characters, Sean and Puck, are also fascinating to follow. Both are prickly persons, either shut off or defensive when interacting with the people around them. In the hands of a lesser writer, these characters would have ended up incredibly off-putting for readers. However, Stiefvater has so clearly defined her characters and their motivations that it is remarkably easy to empathize with them and follow them on their journey.

Sean Kendrick, in particular, is a brooding, enigmatic, and completely compelling character that readers will surely be drawn to. Stiefvater succeeds in imbuing Sean with a danger that does not cross the line towards sleazy, something that other writers in the young adult genre don’t often have a clear grasp on.

Stiefvater also shows great skill at making her characters interact with each other. How the relationship between Sean and Puck progresses throughout the novel is also written so organically that it is hard to imagine them acting and reacting in any other way than they do. Their relationship seems like one that would bloom exactly under the circumstances Stiefvater describes in the book.

To top it all off, Stiefvater also manages to ask some pretty tough questions about tourism as an industry and what it is that we like to think of as home. In as much as the Scorpio Races bring tourists and their money to the island of Thisby, it has also become a burden for some of the Thisby residents who only associate the races with heartbreak and death. For some of these residents, the only option is to leave the island. Is abandoning one’s “home” and “culture” necessarily a bad thing, especially when that home and culture no longer means the same for that person?

Moody, atmospheric, poignant, and yet ultimately hopeful, Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Scorpio Races” is a new triumph for the author. For readers still undecided what to get themselves this holiday season, “The Scorpio Races” is a sure bet.

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4 thoughts on “Book review: Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Scorpio Races””

  1. Just a question, how old exactly is Puck? For some reason I always imagined her as abouy 16 but it doesn’t really seem right…

    1. I think it was actually said in the book that she was 16? I can’t recall at the moment. I am sure that Sean Kendrick is 19. 😀

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