Apr 4, 2014

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie StiefvaterThe Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races is set on Thisby, an isolated island where every year the cappaill uisce come up from the sea. Based on the kelpies from Celtic folklore, these are terrifying, deadly, savage creatures that no one in their right mind ought to approach.

Except of course people do.

Every November, the Scorpio Races are run under the cliffs of Skarmouth. The crowds gather to witness the often lethal event, where dozens try to hang on to their capall uisce for long enough to make it to the finish line in one piece. Nineteen-year-old Sean Kendrick, three times winner of the Scorpio Races, is racing on Corr, the capall uisce he loves beyond reason. Winning just one more time could be the difference between losing him and not. Puck Connolly, the first girl to enter the Scorpio Races, is racing for equally strong reasons — her house, her family, and the Thisby life she loves so much all hang in the balance. Circumstances set Puck and Sean against each other, yet as they prepare for the races together they grow increasingly close.

First of all: holy bookish Batman, is The Scorpio Races astonishingly well written. What I said about The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves goes for this too: there’s just something about Maggie Stiefvater’s writing that feels organic, like something that is rather than something that was crafted (which I fully realise is actually the result of an impressive level of craft). The puppet strings are so well disguised that I find it hard to distance myself from her characters enough to write about them. There aren’t many writers out there who make me feel this way — Patrick Ness comes to mind, but that’s pretty much it. Hence the fact that a rough draft of this post had languished unfinished in one of my folders since January.

I adored The Scorpio Races, and I’m going to attempt to explain why by telling you about the three seemingly unrelated pieces of media it made me think of. I know, I know: comparisons can be a hallmark of lazy reviewing, but I’m hoping that the sheer outward disparity of these three things — The Brides of Rollrock Island, Friday Night Lights, and To the Lighthouse — will grab your attention and convey just how unique this novel actually is (while also giving me a way to explore some of the aspects of the story that resonated the most with me).

The Brides of Rollrock Island is perhaps the most obvious of these comparisons. Seriously, what is it about atmospheric, magic-infused, folklore-inspired novels set on fictional Scottish islands that gets to me so much? One thing these two stories have in common is the fact that they broke my heart, albeit in completely different ways; another is how they both combine moments of real horror with moving scenes in which people manage to connect and understand each other, often against the odds. Additionally, they share a very strong sense of place that’s not only interesting in its own right (I do love me some vivid landscapes and well-realised fictional communities), but helps bring their themes to life. Lonely, sparse, wind-swept Thisby, the island Puck loves so much, is inextricable from this story. The Scorpio Races is as much about what it means to love a place like Thisby as it is about what happens once Puck decides to enter the Scorpio Races.

Both Lanagan and Stiefvater bring a clear feminist sensibility to their stories, which manifests itself in a willingness to directly address how women are relegated to secondary roles in these communities. As I mentioned in my synopsis, Puck is the first girl to enter the Scorpio Races, and as such she encounters the obstacles every trailblazer has to face along the way. The force of convention, while not immutable, is palpable and ever-present, and it’s not easy to be told again and again that you can’t do something simply because no woman has done it before you. There’s a very basic feminist story at the heart of The Scorpio Races — a story where a woman does something everyone considered her incapable of doing by virtue of her gender and does it well — and it’s well-realised, grounded in excellent characterisation and very human details, and always worth telling.

However, Stiefvater takes her analysis further — which is where To The Lighthouse and one of my favourite aspects of The Scorpio Races come in. Puck’s story is about triumphing where everyone expected her to fail, and along the way proving that “because it has always been so” is a pretty lousy reason to keep the gates barred against women — but that’s only part of it. Her story is also about her fear that trespassing against the rigid norms of expected gendered behaviour could have very real personal and social consequences for her. Her story is about asking herself if she’s willing to risk getting hurt to discover the possibilities for genuine intimacy that could lie beyond such rigid roles.

I was reminded of Woolf’s novel because it, too, analyses how the straitjackets of “proper” feminine and masculine behaviour are an impediment to real intimacy, and yet breaking free of them and throwing the script of normative courtship away is absolutely terrifying. I found the following conversation between Puck and fellow islander Peg one of the most interesting moments in the novel because of the light it sheds into these fears:
Peg continues, “When you’re too much like them, the mystery’s gone. No point seeking the grail if it looks like your teacup.”
“I’m not trying to be sought.”
She purses her lips. “All I’m saying is that you’re asking them to treat you like a man. And I’m not sure either of you want that.”
There’s something discomforting about what she says, thought I’m not sure if it’s because I disagree or agree with it. I think of Ake Palsson backing his horse away from me and the combination of her words and the memory sit uneasily on my chest.
“I just want to be left alone,” I said.
“Like I said,” Peg replies. “You’re asking to be treated like a man.”
Peg cautions Puck that moving away from her expected role comes with a price, and there’s no telling what it might mean for her personal relationships. And yet Puck knows what being “treated like a man” really implies — it means having your humanity fully recognised, because a relationship model that relies on women being mysterious and elusive sought-after creatures is one that denies them the full messy complexity of being a person. Will people be willing to accept fully human Puck, or will her fight for equality isolate her? And what does this mean for her budding relationship with the boy she’s falling in love with?

These aren’t trivial questions, and Stiefvater gives them the weigh they merit. As much as my first instinct is to think, “Well, anyone who doesn’t want to deal with a girl’s full humanity can go jump off a cliff”, the truth is that rejection and disappointment hurt, and there’s so much we do (or don’t do) because we fear them. There’s a lot of vulnerability to Puck and Sean’s attempts to reach out to each other, and it’s in part due to this: they dare imagine, and then try for, something that falls outside the structure of what’s always been done. It’s a real partnership, one where a young woman and a young man both get to be complicated human beings, and it’s exhilarating, hopeful, freeing, and utterly terrifying.

My last comparison is to Friday Night Lights, and this has to do with how these two stories approach what it means to belong to a small community. When I wrote about the series, I said that it “never attempts to determine whether it’s right or wrong to want to leave Dillon. There’s no one true answer; there are only individual choices, which are often filled with ambiguity and regret.” Stiefvater writes about Thisby in a similar way: what is for some a suffocating place they need to escape is for others everything they’ve ever wanted. Puck and Sean belong to the latter group:
“The sky and the sand and the sea and Corr.”
It’s a lovely answer and takes me entirely by surprise. I hadn’t realised we were having a serious conversation, or I think I would’ve given a better reply when he asked me. I’m surprised, too, by him including his stallion in his list. I wonder if, when I talk about Dove, people can hear how I love her the way that I can hear his fondness for Corr in his voice. It’s hard for me to imagine loving a monster, though, no matter how beautiful he is. I remember what the old man said in the butcher’s, about Sean Kendrick having one foot on land and one foot in the sea.
Maybe you need a foot in the sea to be able to see beyond your horse’s bloodlust.
“It’s about wanting,” I say eventually, after some considering. “The tourists always seem to want something. On Thisby, it’s less about wanting, and more about being.”
On the other hand, Puck’s older brother, Gabe, needs to leave the island. This ambiguity doesn’t have to be resolved because people are different and want different thing. Thisby is neither a dream island nor a dying community; it’s simply a place that interacts differently with people’s most intimate wants and fears and becomes entirely different for each individual as a result.

I can hardly believe I’ve written all these paragraphs and have barely said anything about Corr, the capall uisce stallion Sean (and later Puck) loves so much. I’m always drawn to stories that capture how complex and fulfilling people’s emotional ties to animals can be, and Stiefvater does it remarkably well. But of course that in this particular story matters are complicated by the fact that the cappaill uisce are killer beasts. It would be senseless to resent them for being what they are, yet can you love them despite (or perhaps in part because of) their indomitable nature? What does it mean to put your trust in a creature like Corr?

I can’t do justice to how movingly yet unsentimentally Stiefvater writes about this. Brace yourself for a connection you’re unlikely to forget, and also for one of the most heartbreaking endings of all times. When I say “heartbreaking”, you’ll almost surely think of something entirely unlike what actually happens — because one of the beautiful things about The Scorpio Races is that it expands the range of stories we tend to think of as having emotional resonance. More endings like this, please. Also, more Maggie Stiefvater in my life. Can I have the third Raven Cycle book now?

Reviewed at: Lady Business, Lady Business+ podcast, My Friend Amy, The Book Smugglers, The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

(Have I missed yours?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. I seriously adored this book too! And I like your comparison to Friday Night Lights and small communities in both. So agree.

  2. Came to your review from the Book Smugglers link on Twitter. It's superb, a real pleasure to read--and I haven't even read The Scorpio Races yet!

    I especially loved what you said about how a place that can be stifling to some can be perfection for others, about human-animal relationships, and about how having to be mysterious and elusive denies women the possibility of being fully human (that last ties in, for me, to thoughts about how writers create a sense of the alien, but that's a discussion for another day).

  3. This is one of my favorite books ever; I can't believe you waited so long to read it! :--) (not because it's one of my favorites, but because it's so good!) :--) BUT WAIT: the best part is yet to come! Go to Maggie Stiefvater's website where she has the recipe for November Cakes - I made them and they are unbelievably good! (I increased the orange juice just a bit too because I liked the dash of orange.) Also, I froze the leftovers individually, and then heated them up in the microwave as needed and that worked out great.

  4. Hahaha, I have now assumed that Corr dies at the end -- although that is probably exactly the wrong assumption you were thinking would happen. My plan now is to get this at the library and read the end before I read the beginning, because I am so curious what it is.

  5. I loved this book so much! Even the narrator of the audiobook was fantastic. Great review and I love what you said about the ending and how she moves beyond romance. :)

  6. Tanya Patrice: I'm glad that makes sense to someone other than me! I know it's not the most obvious comparison, but they both got it so right.

    Asakiyume: Aw, thank you again! I have to say you kind of made my day. And that's a discussion I'd definitely be interested in having sometime!

    Jill: I know, I know, I should have listened to you and read it ages ago. I'll definitely try the November Cakes sometime :D

    Jenny: I knew everyone would assume that :P Although my assumption once I'd started reading was something else, which would probably cross your mind too after a certain scene about halfway through the book. Anyway, if you're not very impressed once you read the ending, please keep it in mind that it's much more moving with the weight of everything else that happens in the story behind it! Also, I hope this will be the book that will convert you to Maggie Stiefvater.

    Kristen: *BIG SPOILERS AHOY* I actually meant more that she moves beyond tragedy. As Jenny above, I kind of assume that Corr died based on all the friends who'd told me the ending got them right in the feels. Then about halfway through I switched to thinking that Sean would die in the races, and that the ending would be Puck returning Corr to the sea on his behalf. In both cases, I assume there would be tragedy and loss. But then she comes up with something that's incredibly moving exactly because it gets you when you're expecting the worst, and I just... gah, my poor heart. It especially touched me that for all his trust, Sean didn't dare assume there might be more to life for Corr than the sea and racing - that there might be him, too, as loved as he was loving *tears up all over again*

  7. I've always thought comparisons indicated a well-rounded (well-read) mind, pretty much the opposite of lazy reviewing. So from my perspective, fantastic review. I've had this book on the nook for a while now, and I'm currently reading The Raven Boys, so this review feels very timely to me. :)

  8. Okay, I need to read Stiefvater. Everything I've heard from you and Renay shows that she clearly has her characters' emotional lives at heart, which is everything I want.

  9. I listened to the audio (which was wonderful), and was the first book I'd read from this author! I never jumped on the werewolf series, even though I DO have them loaded on my iPod. She spins such a magical, mystical setting for this book, and creates such chemistry. I've now read The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves too, and this is the same deal. Chemistry to the point where you love them all and don't want to leave them when you finish the book.

  10. I really must read this. I got a copy when it was 1.99 at Christmastime and haven't read it yet!

  11. This is one I really want to reread at some point. I totally loved it.

    Great review too, I totally understand all of your comparisons, even if I haven't watched past season 1 of FNL (I must watch more of that too)

  12. I looked at the title of this one and thought "nah" kind of dismissively, but then read on, because you always say something interesting, and then you brought in Woolf and the bit about living in small communities and now I want to read this book. Wow.

  13. Yippee - this review makes me so happy :)

  14. Yay! I'm so glad you loved this, I did too. And I lol @ your comparison to Brides of Rollrock Island, I actually read these books back to back so I totally get it.

    Hmmm not Scottish, but if you like magical islands you really ought to give Lost a try...;)

    Will you read the Wolves of Mercy Falls?


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