Sunday, November 17, 2013

Book Review: The Scorpio Races

Title: The Scorpio Races
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Genre: Fantasy, YA


Every fall on the British Isle of Thisby, the capaill uisce rise from the sea.  Men risk life and limb to catch and ride these carnivorous horses in the famed Scorpio Races.  Four-time champion Sean Kendrick thinks running this race will be business as usual.  But Puck Connolly has other plans.  The first girl to enter the races, she's fighting for her family and fighting for her home, and she inspires Sean Kendrick to risk everything for a chance to gain his deepest desire.  But the race can only have one winner, and that's if you survive it first....


You come for the carnivorous horse death race.  You stay for Thisby.

The gray and dreary isle, where small town life is interspersed with attacks of capaill uisce, is so vividly drawn, you can almost smell the salt and sheep entrails.  It's a rough place, but the two protagonists love the it and that love translates to the audience.  I want to drink beer at the Black-Eyed Girl, chat with the butcher's wife, and eat sweet sticky November Cakes at the Scorpio Festival (the recipe's in the back).

Much like life on the island, this book is slow.  Slow and beautiful as the gliding prose that wings you away to a different world.  Slow and tense as the building suspense right before a dramatic bombshell is dropped.  Slow and stretched as a moment between two character with all the unspoken feeling laid out before them.

But always slow.  Even the action feels slow, which might to do with the fact the characters rarely initiate it.  Puck, for all her surly personality, tiptoes around the most dangerous part of the race.  Sean Kendrick doesn't even have a reason for racing until halfway through the book.  With carnivorous horses and the word "races" right there in the title, you expect a pulse-pounding roller coaster, not a quiet portrait of small town life. The Scorpio Races was a good read.  It just wasn't as exciting as I'd hoped.

Rant (Spoilers)

The Scorpio Races has a sense of authority to it.  It is exactly what Maggie Stiefvater means it to be, no more, no less.  I respect that.  I further respect that if she'd made the changes I'm about to suggest, the book would have morphed into a different creature altogether.  That's fine.  But it won't stop me from giving my two cents.

Warning: Spoilers Abound

Puck doesn't ride a capall uisce in the race.  Instead, she rides her beloved mare Dove, a plain old non-flesh-eating horse.  I hoped she'd change her mind or be forced by circumstances to accept a capall uisce, but it never happened.  And this one little decision eliminated a good half the danger of the book.  Rather than having to confront a man-eating equine every time she needs to train, Puck actively avoids them.  Which means her "training" consists of timing the other riders and fretting about feeding her horse expensive hay.

Sean Kendrick, on the hand, does ride one of the capaill uisce, a blood-red stallion named Corr.  Moreover, he trains the other carnivorous horses in his employer's stable and is the person to call when any of the capaill uisce start acting up.  You'd think this would make his segments more exciting, but he's so damn good, you never really fear for his life.  Puck describes him this way: "with Sean, there's never a move he's unsure of."  And that's what makes his sections boring.  He's too self-assured.

But the major problem with Sean Kendrick is that there's no real reason why he should race at all.  If he participates, if he doesn't, if he wins, if he loses, really it's all the same.  It takes about two-thirds of the way into the book for a reason to emerge.  And most of it has to do with Puck.

Now it's no real surprise that when you have a young female lead, a young male lead, and the young man rescues the young woman from an attack flesh-eating horses, that there's going to be some romantic tension between them.  But, life-saving thing aside, the two don't really start to interact until after the rider's parade, over halfway through the book.  This means that for two hundred pages, they barely exchange more than a dozen words between them.  And without Puck to interact with, Sean Kendrick hardly
speaks at all.

The last point is the villains of the story, Benjamin Malvern and to a lesser extent his bullying son Matthew "Mutt" Malvern.  Benjamin Malvern is a rich and powerful man who likes to play games with those underneath him, although what he means to achieve is never really made clear.  Sean Kendrick points out, "I realize I have never once known what he's truly thinking behind those clever, deep-set eyes."  We don't know why he's protecting his son at one moment, provoking him in the next, denying Sean Kendrick the deepest wishes of his heart but yielding before Puck.

So these are the changes I would make.  First, Puck would ride a capall uisce.  Second, she and Sean Kendrick would interact sooner.  Third, Sean Kendrick would have a reason for riding in the races by page 50, 100 tops.  Fourth, Benjamin Malvern would have an aim and motive for manipulating our heroes.

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