Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series haunted me as I read The Scorpio Races. Not because the two are really that similar; more because they are linked by Celtic mythology. And also partly because that series and this book are rooted in a recognizable world that suddenly and delightfully reveals mythological roots (well, Scorpio Races is sort of an alternate world that doesn’t actually exist, but still. It feels the same).
I think I also connected the two because of the water horses, the capall uisce.
The Dark is Rising is what introduced me to the mari llwyd, and it’s a powerful, creepy image — hard to shake, chilling to think about. While the gray horse figure and the capall uisce in Scorpio Races aren’t at all the same, they feel connected.
And this is a book about connections and divisions, so maybe all of this makes a kind of sense.
In case you haven’t already read the book, or the many starred reviews, or the NY Times review, here’s a quick description: Puck Connelly and Sean Kendrick love their (fictional) island of Thisby. They are both determined to win the traditional, dangerous Scorpio Race because without the hefty cash prize, they will each lose everything — Sean will lose all that’s left of his family: the capall uisce Corr; Puck will lose her home and what’s left of her shattered family. But as they train for the race, they grow closer; unfortunately, only one can win.
The characterization and writing is incredibly strong — and I loved the love story — but ultimately that’s not what’s got me excited about this book. I think all of those elements work well in service of creating a definite sense of place. Thisby is probably what I love most about the story. Well, that and the way that Stiefvater uses the water horse legend.
The detailed description of small town life, all the inhabitants, the description of the island and the sea and the annual horse race add up into something really beautiful. Thisby and the Scorpio race are quite like Cooper’s Great-Uncle Merry: “like the hills, or the sea, or the sky; something ancient, but without age or end.” From the cave painting to the blood-spattered rock to the bones of the horse that grant Sean a wish at the festival, this story is tides and sand and rocks, eternal and ageless. Stiefvater threads these images and themes through the story, and they elegantly connect with the very personal and immediate, with Sean’s and Puck’s growing up, their stories and the tattered families that they are determined to hold together.
Puck and Sean are strong, specific characters and their relationship is earned. Everything about their relationship feeds into the major images and themes of the novel. Their reasons for competing in the Scorpio Race are similar but different because in some ways they are two sides of a coin, or two halves of a whole, just as Thisby is both the sea and the island, the fishers and the horse racers, the Catholic (or anyway, the church that is St Columba) and the pagan (“from the sea, to the sea”). This is a story of differences that come together and make something more.
Just as important to the story as the place: the water horse legend. Stiefvater has twisted it to talk about change and growth and the things that last. The capall uisce are feral — impersonally cruel, like the sea or barren Thisby. The sea calls to them, and they call to the men who race them. They have shaped the island, and they have shaped both Sean’s and Puck’s lives. Stiefvater has a deft touch with the magic, making The Scorpio Races slightly hard to pin down as a genre. Iron, salt, and bells can help to restrain the water horses, but there are no spells, no overt magic. It’s the kind of fantasy that feels more like historical fiction (or maybe regular fiction, because it could almost be set today).
This is not a perfect read, but I believe its flaws are minor. Puck’s reason for entering the race is kind of thin. But it happens early enough in the story that I forgave it as a reader. By the time I realized it didn’t quite add up, I was captivated and just didn’t care.
There has been some (divided) discussion of the pacing, at least around these parts. I will say, it worked for me. At first I just thought it was your typical slow-paced fantasy, full of delicious details (as a reviewer, am I required to say “lushly detailed”? Because that feels wrong; Thisby isn’t lush!). But now that I’ve finished, I think it’s slow paced and feels slightly meandery because it’s about Thisby, which is where opposing forces come together, where the sea meets the land. As much as it’s a love story, or the story of a fateful race, it’s an exploration of rituals and a place and the people who make that place. It’s about Thisby and the not-quite-magic that defines it.
It’s a slow pace, and I said the plot feels meandery, but it all really leads to one event: the race. And then the race is lightning fast. I think that works on a couple levels. When you’re dreading something (or really looking forward to something) time drags on. And then it’s suddenly here and you’re not ready but here you are and the race is over. Objectively, too, I think the end was slightly jam-packed, but it also felt exactly right: nothing worked out too perfectly or too easily.
I will also admit, this is the first book I read for the blog that didn’t feel like homework. I forgot about writing up something, I dropped my post-its, and I didn’t take any notes. I just read for pure pleasure and tried to stretch it out, deadlines be damned. So I might be a little biased when I say that this is another book I’ll officially back as a real contender. It’s one of my top five of the year, and I’d be willing to sit at the table in Dallas and argue that point.