1.11.2012

Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

I won a copy of this book from Erin Bowman, who gave a copy away because she loved the book so much. THE SCORPIO RACES was the last book I read in 2011, and it was also my favorite! I loved it so much, I bullied Alz into reading it immediately. (Beware: lots of text ahead)

So, this is going to be slightly different - a joint review!

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

(Rating/Grade averaged between us)
Intellectual Rating: 9 out of 10
Emotional Grade: A range

Book Blurb: (from goodreads) It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

Krispy's Take: So let's start off by being completely honest; I LOVE THIS BOOK. I love it to bitty bitty pieces, which makes it incredibly hard for me to write a coherent review because all I want to do is SQUEE about it and tell you to read it. But I will endeavor to tell you exactly why I feel this way and why you might want to give this book a chance too.
 
This doodle of Krispy's Starry-Eyed Tears of Lurve™ does not
fully convey the depths of her <3 according to Alz.

A PROLOGUE / MY DOUBTS - I had read Maggie Stiefvater's SHIVER back when it came out, and while I liked it, I didn't love it. I liked it enough to be interested in the sequels, but on the other hand, I have yet to pick up any of them. So when THE SCORPIO RACES hit shelves, I was ambivalent despite the nice cover and horses (even though I love horse stories). I thought it was going to be more typical YA fare - dangerous races with gimmicky supernatural horses all used as a dramatic backdrop to what would ultimately be a teenage love story.

From Erin Bowman's review, I learned that it might actually be more like the beloved horse stories of my childhood like The Black Stallion, which is essentially the story of a boy and his horse - a bond that is formed, tested, and then proven in a climactic match race.

That said, here's why I loved THE SCORPIO RACES.

THE WORLD / WRITING - Maggie Stiefvater's worldbuilding is pitch perfect here. Thisby is a fictional island that feels like a place you can really visit. It is bleak but beautiful, painted with a deft and light hand in spare prose. In SHIVER, there were moments where I felt like the writing was written to be beautiful, but that wasn't an issue at all in this book. The beauty was effortless and subtle. There is weight to the island, substance built from rich imagined rituals and traditions, all of which include the capaill uisce (or the water horses) as an integral part. You're persuaded to believe that there is an island in the Atlantic where vicious magic horses are a normal part of daily life, and because the magic and superstition is blurred and so much a part of the day-to-day, the water horses don't feel like a gimmick. The water horses themselves - both deadly and beautiful, loved and feared - is symbolic of what life on Thisby is like and what Sean and Puck love about their home.

Also, Maggie Stiefvater knows how to set a scene and build atmosphere. In fact, the atmosphere is one of the best and strongest parts of the book. She gives you all the right details to create a mood and a distinct impression of a place. You get caught up in the beat of the Scorpio drums, the jingling of bells, and the smell of warm honey dripping from November cakes at the Scorpio Festival. You feel the cold sea wind on your face and the rumble of hooves in your chest when Sean races along the shore astride his beloved water horse Corr. Each setting, each event is brought to wondrous life.

Oh and Stiefvater uses repetition of images and phrases to great effect. It's how she threads emotions and ideas through the book seamlessly. Sean's mantra of "I am so, so alive" echoed on two different race days - in the beginning and near the end - not only made the literary geek in me squee, it evoked a specific emotion and revealed something about Sean!


THE CHARACTERS - Sean and Puck are fully realized people with needs and flaws and strengths, and it was easy to tell them apart. They co-narrate the novel, and sometimes in dual narrative books, the characters end up sounding too similar. Not a problem here. Sean and Puck have distinct voices and such different (yet similar) life concerns.

Particularly with Puck, I liked that she wasn't your typical "spunky/snarky" YA heroine. She was strong in a very authentic, natural way. She wasn't in-your-face about it. As mentioned in the blurb, Puck is the first girl to ever enter the Scorpio Races, and as such, she is eventually faced with sexist and traditionalist obstacles. In this instance, she doesn't have a quippy comeback or an eloquent speech about gender equality or getting with the modern times (though I do love a good verbal smackdown). Instead, she answers in a way that is wholly personal and true to her character.
"I have my own reasons for riding," I snap. "Just like every man who climbed onto this rock. Just because I'm a girl doesn't make those reasons any less."
As a result, she comes across like a real person and that truth to her character is what reveals her strength. It's not a blustery show.

The supporting cast had substance. They had recognizable personalities and seemed to lead lives outside of the MCs'. They helped and hindered our MCs without turning into pure plot devices (something I feared in the case of George Holly). They gave character to the island, added layers to themes, and played foils to our MCs. I also loved the really random side characters, the ones that were just mentioned on the side (by their full names too), because they made Thisby seem like it was populated by actual people.

THE STORY/STORIES - Dual perpectives can be hit or miss because the characters might sound too similar or one character's story is more interesting and maybe even more important than the other character's. Not so here! While it's true that I was more interested in Sean's story at first (and it remains the story closest to my heart), I grew into Puck's story. I became just as invested in her well-being as I was in Sean's.

The dual narrative also serves to portray two different kinds of drama and to give you a comprehensive look at life on Thisby. Puck's story is essentially about family and what makes a place "home" to a person and what makes people leave. From her, we see the simplicity and hardship of life on the island, the danger of the water horses, and the closeness of the community. Sean's story is the archetypal story of a boy and his horse. From him, we see the horse-based side of life on the island, the politics and pageantry involved in the horse business, and the raw beauty and old magic of Thisby.

The dual narrative here truly interweaves - that is, each story line has its own stakes, its own tension. Sean and Puck's journeys intersect at times before really intertwining, but they are never wholly dependent on each other. The main characters don't meet and suddenly become completely invested in the other person's concerns. It was refreshing to see that. I liked that even as they became more involved in each other's lives, Sean and Puck never lost sight of their individual priorities.

Stakes are consistently raised on both sides. They're both in the race to get what they want. Puck is trying to keep her family together, is trying to keep the things that make Thisby home. Sean races to be with the only thing he cares about, his horse Corr, and he races to be free. They're both discovering what the difference is between want and need, and they're both discovering what's truly important to them.

Both of them NEED to win the Scorpio Races, but only one of them can. This never becomes a compromise between them, despite their growing friendship.

THE THEMES - This is a story about the ties that bind, about love, loyalty, and about letting go. It explores what makes a place "home" to a person. It highlights the bond between humans and their animal companions. The characters find their courage, find things they're willing to risk their lives on, find room to change. Their individual stories are woven in such a way as to highlight and strengthen the overarching themes of the novel. By the time you get to the end of the book, it's like reaching the finish line of the races. You're breathless with how everything came together in this pretty little package, perfectly book-ended by the love a boy has for his horse.

(c) Maureen Clark Photography - click to see more

SOME NOTES - This is not your typical "horse story," but it is still, in part, a horse story. So if that isn't your thing, you might not like it. Since it isn't a typical horse story though, I still suggest you give it a try. It is also a SLOW book. It unfolds at its own pace, slowly building tension. That's because this a book where setting the MOOD is a very important part of the storytelling. It is also a story that is more literary than you'd probably expect from something with flesh-eating horses. That said, I've seen people call the book "boring."

Expanding on that last point, this is NOT an action-y novel. There's action and danger but not a whole lot of it. It's also not a heavy "plot" novel, and the magic is subtle. It's called THE SCORPIO RACES, but the races are the goal, the set-up and the end point for the story. Unlike The Hunger Games where a big part of the story are the Games themselves, the Scorpio Races is not actually about the races themselves (and technically, the only race we care about is the one that Sean and Puck are in).

Alz's Take: I pretty much agree with everything Krispy's said about themes, characters, settings, water horses not being a gimmick, etc. I'm also one of those for whom this book was not my cup of tea—and yet I still enjoyed it.

Let's go back to the beginning though. I don't know how or why, but for some reason, I thought The Scorpio Races was going to be like this:

"FOR BLOOD AND GLORY!"
I thought it was a high fantasy where carnivorous water horses pulled chariots in a weeks-long bloody battle-race through the desert. And so I was totally weirded out when I perused the book, amusing Krispy with my exclamations of, "It's on like a British island or something!" and "WTF they have cars?" and "There are no chariots."

But after I got over my disappointment and defied expectations, I enjoyed the book even though I never had a horse phase. I echo most everything Krispy said—though I do have some quibbles.  And that's all I have with this book. Quibbles. No serious issues. For all the length I expend here, these quibbles did not detract from my reading experience for the most part; they're more in the vein of "I wish this had been done better."

1ST QUIBBLE - Mutt Malvern is the sole child and bastard son of Benjamin Malvern, the man who owns most of the wealth on Thisby because he has the biggest stables, and the same man who owns Corr and employs Sean to work the stables and ride once a year in the Scorpio Races. Mutt is jealous of Sean and hates him. 

Sean doesn't care for Mutt and never devotes much time or thought to him beyond the immediacy of the moment (i.e. insults, confrontations, etc.)—so we never learn anything about the long years of their relationship prior to the beginning of the book.  Much can be extrapolated from their social and economic positions and their antagonism during the story, but there's no narrative exploration or even hinting at what incidents might bridge the chasm between jealousy and hatred.  I just wanted a little more depth because otherwise it's the same old story.  Well written, perhaps, but the same.

2ND QUIBBLE - Mutt and his dad - we don’t ever get to read about them either, not even so much as a single thought from Sean on their father-son relationship.  This is understandable because this is Sean's story (and Puck's) and not Mutt's. But in a book otherwise so well-written, it’s a pity that not even a half-paragraph here or a single line there could be spared to round out an otherwise basic antagonist.  It didn't need much to make it even better.

Don't get me wrong. Mutt is written very well for the antagonist that he is, but that's all that he is. Any depth is left up to the reader to interpret.*

3RD QUIBBLE - Sean doesn't grow at all except for the subtle growth of his relationship with Puck. He does have an epiphany or two, but by the end of the book I didn't feel that he'd changed that much from the beginning. While Puck faces adversity and develops the strength and confidence to overcome them, Sean remains pretty much a static figure in comparison.

Sean and Corr is very much the quintessential story of the Boy and His Horse. Unlike that archetypical tale, we don't get to see them develop their bond or learn to work together. That's already happened and we are not privy to those scenes. Maybe if this had just been the story of Sean and Corr alone we would have seen all that, but as it is the book isn't big enough to encompass all that and be balanced with Puck's story too.**

4TH QUIBBLE - The ending. Sean's ending was beautiful and fitting, but Puck's was just a bit pat. Plausible, and in-character, but pat. Krispy agrees that everything's a bit too neatly wrapped up on her side. I would have liked just a little more looming reality but faced with renewed spirit and determination, as opposed to just the spirit and determination alone. It's like what Finn tells Puck when he makes her hot chocolate: A little salt makes the hot chocolate taste all the sweeter.

(c) Ken Reardon / freezeframefoto - click for more.

Conclusion: We both enjoyed THE SCORPIO RACES. After all, we wrote this freaking essay about it. So you should check it out, expecting a slow atmospheric story about ties that bind.  And not chariots.

*Forthcoming in the future: an in-depth analytical discussion between Krispy and Alz on Mutt Malvern. Krispy busted out some text-supported literary analysis well worth a 9 on an AP essay in our emails about Mutt, which says something about The Scorpio Races that it can lend itself to such a critical eye.

**Essay on Sean Kendrick too. There is something very fitting about the subtle change in Sean that I find appealing and satisfying that I don't have quibbles with, whereas Alz does.

EDIT TO ADD: Sophia is holding a fabulous giveaway with two prizes: a signed book and a 25-page WIP critique from both of us here at A Nudge!  Hurry! Enter now!

15 comments:

Sophia Chang said...

Yes. YES. THAT picture (of the desert chariot race.) As expected, I had to skim much of this review to not spoil myself, but as soon as I saw that photo I knew EXACTLY what you were talking about.

Connie Keller said...

I'm not really a horse person (I like to ride them, but I'm allergic--dumb, but true). However, I've read so many wonderful things about this book that I think it's time for me to read it. Thanks for the review!

Yahong Chi said...

WHEEE so glad you both loved it! Now I'm even more looking forward to reading it.

& said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emy Shin said...

Like Connie, I'm also not much of a horse person. But based on Erin's review & now both of yours -- I'll have to get THE SCORPIO RACES on my next book-buying spree.

And eeee! I'll have to run over to Sophia's blog & fight everybody to get those 25-page critique for both of your critiques! Maybe I'm slightly insane, but the prospect of my manuscript being torn apart by Alz the same way as in the reviews makes me so very excited! :D

sarcofugus said...

I'd seen this book in the shelves but was always like "nah, not my thing."
And skip it in favour of something else.

After reading your essay about it, I've actually changed my mind - it sounds like a book that I would truly enjoy. And I need to read more actual books, not just fanfic although that's good too)

Very well written "essay" :p.
*applause, applause*

Dang, now I really have to read it. :)

sarcofugus said...

I'd seen this book in the shelves but was always like "nah, not my thing."
And skip it in favour of something else.

After reading your essay about it, I've actually changed my mind - it sounds like a book that I would truly enjoy. And I need to read more actual books, not just fanfic although that's good too)

Very well written "essay" :p.
*applause, applause*

Dang, now I really have to read it. :)

akossket said...

I'm usually a huge fan of Maggie S. work but I had a hard time getting into The Scorpio Races. Maybe I should give it another try.
Awesome review :)

shelly said...

What an extensive book review.

Lydia Kang said...

Based on Krispy's fangirl squeees, I bought this book and it's coming in the mail. I skimmed a lot of this review so I could read it with as fresh eyes as possible.

Thanks guys! I'll be rereading this after I'm done.

And five stars for the illustrations! *****

Medeia Sharif said...

I love this dual book review. I think I'm going to buy this book sooner rather than later.

Margo Kelly said...

I love book reviews! thanks for sharing. :)

M.J. Fifield said...

I loved this book so, so much. It left me absolutely breathless. I really appreciate the review...so glad you both enjoyed it.

Micaella Lopez said...

Maggie Stiefvater really built a great world here, I believed and felt every word. Maggie as always for me has fantastic writing style. Very strong characters that I really did care about. I was drawn to the alluring water horses, terrifying as they were, to me they were both magical and beautiful.

This a must read book, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
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Hyacinth Marius said...

This story is so much more than a race. I struggle to even tell you about it. There’s desperation and hope, bravery and honor, magic and danger. And I couldn’t have asked for a better final scene.

Hyacinth
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