Desert Isle Keeper
The Scorpio Races
When it comes to YA fiction, I make snap judgements. 99% of the time, I read the first chapter and I’ll know whether I’ll like the book or drop it. So after hearing so much about Ms. Stiefvater’s 2011 YA fantasy, I decided to give it a try. And, indeed, the first chapter test didn’t fail – what began as a lyrical, haunting story held true to the very end.
Thisby is a rocky, barren island of 3000 people, situated nebulously off the coast of somewhere in the UK (I suspect Ireland or Wales, but we never really know). No one comes and many people leave – except in November, when thousands come for the Scorpio Races, when men capture the capaill uisce – carnivorous water horses that surge out of the foaming sea – and ride them in a short, deadly, brutal 10-minute race along the beach.
Sean Kendrick, nineteen years old, lives and breathes with horses. He is poor, an orphan since he saw his father torn apart by the capaill uisce, and works at Thisby’s preeminent Malvern stables. He keeps to himself, ignoring Mutt Malvern’s jibes, and has won the Scorpio Races four times with his beloved Corr, the capaill uisce that, unfortunately, belongs to Malvern. If he wins a fifth time, he will have saved enough to buy Corr and start his own stable.
Kate “Puck” Connolly never thought of entering the races, but she needs the money desperately. Orphaned, sixteen years old and sandwiched between a taciturn elder Gabe and even more silent Finn, Puck paints earthenware pots for the tourists and races her horse Dove against Finn and his old Morris car. Not that she’s a sweet twee heroine; on the contrary, Puck is prickly, stubborn, and downright thorny. And when she arrives home one day to find that Gabe plans to leave the island for the mainland, abandoning her and Finn, she realizes they need money.
There’s an enchanting dichotomy between the timeless, almost fairy tale mythological aspects (Ms. Stiefvater deliberately leaves the year and setting unknown, although I would peg it in the 1920s off the coast of Ireland) and the harsh grit of island life and perennial death. There’s violence and bloodshed, and youths leaving desolation for greener lands. But there are also November Cakes and parades, handsome Americans in funny hats, and an ending that took me completely by surprise.
In the midst of the events, Puck and Sean find each other (of course, and their romance is lovely but not cloying), but even more importantly they survive, and in a manner without compromising their values and character. There are no absolute values in Ms. Stiefvater’s tale, which is told through first-person perspectives alternating between Puck and Sean – there are only two people trying to do what it takes to stay alive and live the life they want.
I really loved The Scorpio Races. Friends have compared it to Robin McKinley, which made me (who damn near puts Robin McKinley on an altar) sit up and take notice. Well, they’re right. It really is that good.