Author Maggie Stiefvater. (Kate Hummel, Scholastic )
The Scorpio Races
Scholastic: 409 pp., $17.99, ages 13 and up
Maggie Stiefvater is the bestselling author of the werewolfian romance, the Shiver trilogy — a series that wrapped up over the summer with more than 1.6 million books printed in the U.S. and foreign rights sold to 36 countries. Now the young-adult novelist is turning her attention to another breed of mythological creature — the maniacal water horse.
American readers are probably unfamiliar with such a thing, but the capall uisce (pronounced "copple ooshka"), as they're called in "The Scorpio Races," are a Celtic legend. The flesh-eating equines emerge from the water each November, simultaneously terrorizing the townspeople and electrifying them with their beauty and strength.
It's the rare individual brave enough to mount such a horse. Rarer still is the individual who will race one along the beach, unsure of whether a competing horse will pluck them out of the saddle for a snack or gallop into the crashing waves, bringing certain death to its rider.
On the tiny island of Thisby (population 4,000), only a couple of dozen riders are so foolish, er, brave, as to compete in the annual Scorpio Races that take place each Nov. 1, including, for the first time, a young woman named Puck. One of three kids who were orphaned when their parents were eaten by carnivorous stallions, she's determined not only to compete but to win. Fellow islander and soon-to-be love interest Sean Kendrick is equally motivated. He witnessed his dad's demise under trampling hooves nine years earlier.
Both Puck and Sean are hoping to take the prize money and increase their meager fortunes. The hardscrabble island of Thisby is rural and dirt poor, save for the races that bring tourists, and money, from the mainland, much like the similarly treacherous, real-life Isle of Man TT motorcycle races. Dangerous as the Scorpio Races are, the island needs them to survive. "The island would otherwise be dead," Puck's mother once told her.
Thisby is a place that simultaneously repels and attracts, a place that oppresses some while giving freedom to others. It's all a matter of perspective. Thisby is not real, but descriptions of its rocky shoreline and temperamental weather along with the characters' names give it a distinctly Irish feel. Likewise, the bowler hats the tourists wear and the Morris motor car Puck's brother drives indicate the action isn't taking place in the present but the early 20th century.
Puck has no intention of leaving the island, difficult as it is to eke out a living painting knickknacks. Sean earns his keep mucking out barns and training capall uisce. "The Scorpio Races," like the Shiver trilogy, alternates between Puck's and Sean's points of view. Puck is the strong-willed feminist whose mother told her she "was born out of a bottle of vinegar instead of born from a womb," Puck says. "She and my father bathed me in sugar for three days to wash it off. I try to behave, but I always go back to the vinegar."
Sean, on the other hand, is stoic. He rarely speaks to anyone but the capall uisce, whom he commands and trains with the skill of a horse whisperer. "The dead speak more than he does," Puck says of Sean.
The romance between the two has a refreshingly slow wind-up, allowing the book's plot to take shape around the characters as Stiefvater thoroughly renders their environs with a writerly wash of sweeping cliff-scapes and sea spray, trots and whinnies. It's a romance of few words, born from mutual respect and a shared love for horses.
It's also a romance with an inherent conflict since Puck and Sean are both competing in a race Sean describes as "a battle. A mess of horses and men and blood." Both characters have compelling reasons to compete and important plans for the race money.
Stiefvater works this conflict to the very end of a thrilling book that's as unusual as it is alluring.