Thursday, 7 July 2011

Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

You're going to have to trust me on this one from the outset, because the initial pitch isn't promising. I shall demonstrate by relaying a conversation I had with one of my best friends last weekend in Cambridge, who shall be known henceforth as Dr Alice:
Me: Alice, you like horses, don't you? (Alice is in fact a fine competitor in Eventing, a sport I don't really understand, except for the fact that it involves horses and is quite posh)
Dr Alice: Yes...
Me: Well I'm reading this book that you might like. It's about horses...
Dr Alice: Really? Tell me more...
Me: Well, when I say horses, what I really mean to say is magical carnivorous water horses... who race on a beach...
Dr Alice: [imagine open mouthed baffled expression here]
Needless to say that this expression was similar to mine when I was first told about the book by my lovely sales rep from the publisher, Scholastic. 

Every November the water horses emerge from the sea on to the remote island of Thisby seeking blood, and every year locals and tourists alike come down to the beach to watch them, perhaps catch one, and possibly enter themselves in the Scorpio Races, a bloody race in which the winner receives a vast amount of riches. Many try, and many die, either thrown off their horse and trampled underfoot, dragged beneath the waves as their steed charges back home, or eaten. Yes... eaten. There is nothing these horses like more than fresh meat. Sean and Puck both have their reasons to enter the race, and both want to win. They also find in each other kindred spirits, and slowly fall in love.  

There wasn't much about this book that I didn't like. The main characters fall in love a little slowly for my liking, and there weren't enough scenes of them together, but I understand Stiefvater's reasons for keeping them apart. For this isn't meant to be a love story between people, it's a love story between horses. The relationships between Sean and Corr, and between Puck and Dove, are truly beautiful and surprisingly gripping. 

Stiefvater revels in displaying unconventional, yet inevitable love. She does this to some degree in her other novels (whether with werewolves or faeries) but it is in The Scorpio Races that her confidence really shines. Her characters barely speak (especially to each other!) but she knows how they move, how they feel and how they touch. Scenes that in any other novel would seem tame are positively charged with sexual energy: there's a moment where Sean holds Puck's wrist, feeling her pulse after she rides his horse Corr, and needless to say my pulse was racing quite a bit too...

But what's truly amazing about this novel is the world that Stiefvater creates. It is so convincing I often found myself asking 'Where is it?! I want to go!!!' Thisby is part England, part Ireland, part eastern seaboard (I have visited Maine and Nova Scotia, and these could easily be locations). Sometimes I imagined characters with Cornish accents, sometimes Welsh, sometimes something else entirely (Puck was almost always consistently Irish sounding to me). As well as being an 'Other Place', Thisby is set in an 'Other Time'. Maybe Victorian, maybe post-war, maybe now. It is a world of quaint independent shops (butchers and bakers and tea rooms!), pagan festivals and old-school patriarchal values. This is a world where Water Horses are not only real, they are incredibly plausible. 

This is a novel that should be impossible to pull off. It is rooted in obscure myth, set in a strange alternate-England of olde, and features a romance more Victorian than modern. Oh, and did I mention the flesh-eating water horses? It shouldn't work. And yet it does. It really does. It is fine, intelligent escapism that makes me yearn for simple things, like bicycles and beaches (and quiet boys who know how to saddles from their spurs...). 

The Scorpio Races comes out in October, and I'd urge you all to read it!
(Alice will be receiving my proof copy in the post shortly...)


  1. Your review is lovely! I didn't know anything about the premise so it explains the gist of the story and characters very well. It sounds so unique and not to be missed. Can't wait.

  2. I think this book sounds fascinating! Can't wait to read it! Thanks for the review :)

  3. Wow, I enjoyed your review a lot. Thanks for sharing it with us... I can't wait to read the book!



  4. Maggie Stiefvater tweeted this review on her Twitter. You should be proud! :)

    I didn't know what to expect from this book, and now you make me can't wait any longer!

  5. I know!!! Maggie made my day today!!!

  6. LOVE the cover! Great review... I need to erad 2 more books before a signing this weekend, then SCORPIO is ON!

  7. I love the author's writing style- the descriptions of this unique world really pulls on the heartsrings, especially the characters within. I only wish there was more to read, I wasn't quite done with them yet!

  8. There is something delightful about Maggie's writing, a charm woven into the simplest sentences that makes you want to read them over, and over, and over again. Her characters are vivid, physically and emotionally - even minor characters. I also like that her characters seem to find humor and sarcasm even in the darkest and most dramatic moments - it feels real even when the events are supernatural.

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