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The Scorpio Races

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.

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. yet another book to add to my list [you guys reading reviews is supposed to streamline the process, not let it lead me to my old age]. i have been hearing people critique the pacing before, so the idea that the pacing matches the scenery is kind of new but, going on other reviews sounds about right [the thoughtful-ness and epic-ness of her writing and storyline, didn’t seem to match up with a serious pacing problem] also the idea that you touched on that YA is kind of becoming homework-y is one that i have been struggling with lately. i often see the awkwardly done 100-175 page quick read or else the gruelingly overdone 200+ that clings to ‘YA language’ to drive an overdone point through.

  2. I agreee that “Puck’s reason for the race is kind of thin.” It’s not like winning would even keep Gabe on the island. And although they are poor, she didn’t even know that the rich guy was going to kick them out at the time she signed up. Like you, I was able to forget about it and got very involved in the build up to the race. But I would have been happier if she had a strong reason. Or if she had at least an inkling of how her action would be viewed, both for her gender and for her horse. How might this go over on the Printz Committee I wonder? Does a book where the whole premise of everything that follows is based on a contrived, unconvincing action really meet standards of the “literary excellence?”

    • Well, as I said, I think it’s a minor flaw (who knows what the committee thinks!?). I agree that Mr Malvern’s visit makes the case for her — cements her decision, you might say — to stay in the race, to stick with it. For Dove. But only after the fact.

      As far as human family dynamics go, she acknowledges on page 364 that she never really believed she could convince Gabe to stay. Even when it first blurts out of her mouth at the dinner table, she accepts that Gabe decides to stay through the race but not any longer.

      And your question has me thinking…is her decision to be in the race any less well-thought-out than Sean’s? He’s pretty much just going through the motions, not putting everything on the line until he sees Puck. So why do we need a less flimsy reason from Puck? Because she’s a girl and bucking tradition or something?

      I thought the book did a fabulous job of showing how shocking her decision was but not dwelling on it. The part when Peg Gratton cuts Puck and she bleeds in order to race very eloquently points out that it’s centuries of human blood on that rock, not necessarily men’s blood. By not explicitly dwelling on the shocking decision, we got to explore tradition and ritual and ceremony and how it shapes us.

      One thing that I keep finding fascinating to think about is that this is a YA book about teens who love where they are from and who want to remain there. There are tons of titles that are about teens who long to move on, to try new things, to be somewhere new and try on new faces in a new place. Which of course makes sense! But what about the teens who love where they are from and yet must still find a way to take their adolescent journey?

  3. Ha! Sarah, that’s a good point, and I think the drive to leave home is a uniquely American cultural stereotype, and perpetuated in movies, TV, and books. My two oldest children decided to go to college at the University of Chicago, simply because they love where they are from, weren’t ready to move, and decided, Why pass up a world-class institution that happens to be four blocks away? It was shocking — SHOCKING — how much they had to defend that decision not only to their peers, but to adults, who should know that the throw-away line “Don’t you want to spread your wings?” is actually very loaded: a challenge of the decision. On the other hand, if a teenager tells them the name of any other college (even a not very good one), they’ll praise him or her for the accomplishment and choice, and find something good to say about the school!

  4. Nancy Werlin says

    “But what about the teens who love where they are from and yet must still find a way to take their adolescent journey?”

    Excellent point. One of many things I love about Melissa Wyatt’s FUNNY HOW THINGS CHANGE (FSG 2009) is that it’s about a boy from small town West Virginia who loves his home and chooses to stay there. He also chooses, incidentally, NOT to go to college — another “forbidden” theme in most of YA. His journey is about the land he loves and also about letting go of a girl he loves who *does* need to leave.

    • Sarah Couri says

      This conversation is making me think of last year’s Hush, which also did break a lot of unwritten rules. (Staying in her community, check. Religious main character [also relatively rare!], check. Married *very* young, check.)

  5. Your post has reminded me how much I loved SCORPIO RACES. I didn’t notice any slow pace. I read it on a plane trip, and was so annoyed to have to stop when the plane landed!

    The biggest flaw for me was I didn’t think the villain’s action at the end was terribly well-motivated. Up to that point, okay, but to act in a way that would probably cause his own death?

    I thought the plotting was wonderful. We wanted both main characters to win, but knew they couldn’t both win.

    I was surprised when Puck entered Dove in the race. If a normal horse can enter, why hadn’t it been done before? Though it was nice the way they got to that point. She tried to get another chance.

  6. I just read the book, having some of these comments/criticisms in mind, and I didn’t find Puck’s reason for entering the race to be particularly farfetched. It seemed exactly like the kind of thing that a vinegary kind of girl (doesn’t she describe herself that way?) would do when faced with the shock/devestation of her brother leaving. She’s not going to try to sweet-talk him into staying, she’s going to push at him and do something she knows will upset him. And then she realizes she made a rash decision, but is too stubborn to back down. So for me, it worked perfectly.

    Like Sarah, I loved the sense of place. I’d forgotten about the Dark is Rising comparison until I came back to comment, but it does seem apt. I’d vote for this one.

  7. I’m reading Scorpio Races right now, and i like it, but i think that as a serious Printz contender it should be noted that for me, as an equestrian, the horse talk feels well researched, which although thats better than poorly researched, i don’t want to read a book about what i love thats ~researched~ i want it to be real. that is esp. important when looking at YA books, where the target audience is one that is generally alienated just in being. the horsey bits she puts in feel kind of clunky and unrealistic. and for me, again as someone who has bonded with horses, the bonds that Puck and Sean have with Dove and Corr seem a bit simplistic, for lack of a better word.

  8. Loved, loved this book. The atmosphere was sooo thick and delicious. I didn’t really like Stiefvater’s other books, so surprised I enjoyed this one so much.


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