Tuesday 12 June 2012

The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater

Every year, the cappail uisce, wild water horses, come out of the sea onto the isle of Thisby. Captured and trained for the Scorpio Races, there is no real taming of these beasts, and to ride them is to take one’s life in one’s hands. Kate “Puck” Connolly, an orphan, is the first female volunteer for the Scorpio Races. Entering on her beloved mare Dove - a land horse - in an attempt to keep herself and brother from being evicted from their home, she meets with not a little opposition from traditionalists. But she has an unexpected ally in Sean Kendrick, four-time winner of the races. But Sean, too, risks everything in the race. Only one can win, while the other must lose all they care about.

She’s done it again! I adore Maggie Stiefvater’s evocative, sensual prose. With a few choice phrases, I could visualise the island of Thisby, all rugged and windswept. I could hear the crashing of the waves, the pounding of the horses’ hooves. Although Stiefvater keeps it ambiguous where and when this island is, I was reminded of my trip to Ireland a few years ago - there is a very Celtic feel to this place, a community steeped in tradition and changeless over the centuries. It’s a tiny community, old-fashioned and insular, with tourists flocking there at October and November to witness the races that are like none other. (I love Stiefvater’s story about all the cliffs she had to visit as research for this book.)

And the water horses! Years ago I fell in love with a trilogy called The Bitterbynde by Cecelia Dart-Thornton, which drew on so many forgotten myths and fairytales (one day I’ll dig out my old reviews of these books and post them here) but most memorable to me were the water horses - each uisge in that version. And in that version, the each uisge shape-shifted into handsome young men before sweeping their victims off to a watery grave. At first I was a little disappointed that this aspect of the myth didn’t feature in The Scorpio Races, but that would have been too much to fit into the novel. It worked perfectly well without what Stiefvater later described as “the creepy red-headed water boys with kelp in their hair.” In fact, it worked much more than “perfectly well.”
Slea Head, Co. Kerry

Both Puck and Sean are desperately trying to hold onto the things they love - in Puck’s case, the island and her home, in Sean’s case his cappal uisce, Corr. But times are changing, and it’s hard to carry on their way of life in a changing world. If Thisby isn’t exactly the island time forgot, time hasn’t been paying it an awful lot of attention. Jobs are scarce and the young people are gradually leaving the island for a more prosperous future on the mainland. (Boy, that strikes a chord with this island-based blogger!) 

Thisby and its residents get under your skin and into your blood. The Scorpio Races is a wild and exhilarating read - once the race had begun, I held my breath for a long time. How would this end? Could both the characters have a happy ever after? I felt guilty for backing either narrator, because victory for one must surely mean heartbreak for the other - and I wanted so desperately for them both to get their hearts’ desire.

The Scorpio Races is a definite “one more chapter” book - I’d intend to close the book, and the next thing I knew I’d got through another fifty or so pages. Highly recommended!

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