Book Review: The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races has been on my reading list for a while, after numerous recommendations, but I only recently got to it. After reading The Raven Boys, I knew I needed to get on it, because Stiefvater is a fantastic writer and I love her take on fantasy, magic, and worldbuilding. (Sadly, I won’t be reading the Shiver books because they’re annoyingly printed in coloured ink, which renders them virtually impossible to read. Publishers, please don’t do this, I don’t care how faddish it is right now.)

This story is set on a remote, windswept, and wave-rocked island which in some ways took me back to The Brides of Rollrock Island. Except in the case of The Scorpio Races, the thing that rises from the sea is water horses, mystical horses with supernatural speed, power, and grace. The only problem is that they’re carnivorous, happy to eat each other and any animals (or people) they find on the island, and their fractious attitudes and disinterest in people makes them very challenging to tame.

That, of course, doesn’t stop people from trying, and every year, the more daring residents of the island compete in the Scorpio Races, pitting horses against each other in a brutal race that usually takes a few lives (of horses and riders) and results in heavy betting as members of the town bargain over the possible outcome. In a way, the races are a defiance: at the same time the horses threaten the island and its residents (one of our protagonists, for example, is an orphan because a horse killed her parents while they were working on a fishing boat), they are also mystical figures of beauty and amazement, challenges to tame.

To race the horses against each other is to sneer in the face of fate, with riders risking their lives every time they mount up and especially when they compete. Not only do they have to contend with the dangers of their own horses, but they have to fear the rest of the pack, and, even worse, predators who may rise up from the sea during training or the race itself. Such traditions, of tempting, braving, and daring fate, are far from uncommon around the world, especially in places where everyone leads a hardscrabble existence. The Scorpio Races represent a chance at distinction, at getting out of a difficult life, at taking a different path than other islanders.

Thus, they become highly symbolic, even to those members of the island who are reluctant to engage with the spectacle. They’re also a huge tourist attraction, drawing people from the mainland and elsewhere who come to see the rumoured races and witness quaint sea village life. For a few weeks, the island is abuzz with race training, fairs, parades, and tourism, before it dulls back down again and everything returns to normal, as though nothing ever happened. Except, of course, for those families who lost loved ones to the races, or bade farewell to family members who chose to take a boat to the mainland after the races to eke out new lives there.

When young Puck enters the race in a last-ditch attempt to earn enough money to support her family, everyone’s skeptical, and angry about a woman in the races, because it breaks with tradition. She finds an unexpected friend and supporter who stands by her in training and in racing, even as she disrupts tradition even further by racing her island horse against a pack of merciless water horses.

This is a book about coming of age, about growing apart, about defying tradition, and about standing fast in the face of severe opposition. Both our protagonists are beset by people who are determined to prevent them from competing in the race, at considerable costs, including risking their own lives. And both are forced to fight back in creative ways, even while they’re trying to turn the other cheek and pretend the harassment, attacks, and brutality aren’t bothering them. On a small island where everything is watching them, they know that every move they make comes under sharp eyes, no matter how private they wish to be.

Stiefvater does an amazing job of painting a harsh landscape that is as unforgiving as the fiendish horses that rise from the depths of an angry Atlantic every fall to simultaneously torment, delight, fixate, terrify, and awe the residents of the island. And she paints vivid, strong, powerful characters, by and large without resorting to the usual stereotypes seen in stories like this. There is no blustery fisherman, no cheery fishwife, no kindly landowner. There is a savvy butcher’s wife, a harsh, cruel stable owner, and a curiousity shop proprietor with a soft spot for orphans, though.

If you haven’t read The Scorpio Races, you should definitely give it a go. I was definitely transfixed, and had to race through it to find out what happened, because almost any imaginable ending was terrible for someone, and I grew to know and love all of the characters, which resulted in constantly fretting over them. And if you’ve already read it, well, bully for you. Why not read it again, though, just in case?

You never know what you might find on the second go-round, because a good book contains many tales, and not all of them are obvious on the first glance.