Imagine this frightening thought - horses that kill. In Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races, they emerge from the sea seeking blood. Instead of succumbing to their fear, the island inhabitants of Thisby celebrate these predatorial equines by harnessing their power for an annual race. Every year on the first of November, they shackle them with iron hoping to make it to the finish line alive. The four-time reigning champ of the event is 19-year-old Sean Kendrick. He's yet again the odds-on favorite until Kate "Puck" Connolly, the race's first female, enters the fray. Suddenly for the first time, Sean is aware of more than just the horses.
Stiefvater fashions a world that borders on the edge of reality. Thisby exists somewhere off the Florida mainland. Tourists descend from the United States to witness the carnage firsthand. The time period is undefined, but men wear bowler hats and reporters wield large flash bulb popping cameras. The ambiguity of the setting adds to the narrative's off-center feel. It is familiar, yet strange. It's the Kentucky Derby meets Jurassic Park.
The romance between Sean and Puck builds slowly. At first, the lack of dialogue between the two is frustratingly apparent. They barely know each other and don't have much contact. However, after the first 100 pages, the passion between the unlikely couple begins to build. It reaches a fever pitch during a midnight ride on the beach with both astride Sean's horse. A boy tucking a girl's ponytail into her collar was never so hot.
What makes the story compelling is how much is riding on the outcome of the race for Sean and Puck. Benjamin Malvern, the owner of the stable where Sean works and Puck's landlord, holds their fate in his hands. If Sean wins, he can finally buy his winning mount from him. If Puck wins, she can pay the back rent on her family home. However, Puck has more of an uphill climb. The men do not want her in the race. Her ride is a regular breed, not of the feared water horse bloodline. Her parents were killed by the beasts during a boating accident. Taking part in the event only serves to reawaken painful memories for her.
Fear permeates the pages. Puck cowers in a barn as a water horse tries to break in. Riders are mutilated on the beach during training. Gutted livestock litter the roadways. But the true savagery lies with Malvern's son, Mutt. His brutality to man and horse alike is distressing to behold. With Sean as his sworn enemy, a knife in Mutt's hand wields more destructive fury than the piercing teeth of any water horse.
Stiefvater does a phenomenal job of depicting the bond between horse and rider. The way that Sean and Puck relate to their charges is pure, devotional love. They view their horses as trusted companions, more like family members than mere livestock. They communicate with them on a higher level through subtle movement and tone of voice. Their ability to connect with their four-legged steeds is quite special and utterly remarkable.
Throughout island life is not glamorized. It's always windy. It smells like fish. There aren't any jobs. But Sean and Puck wouldn't have it any other way. The island is a part of their very soul. It's a dangerous, bleak habitat with imminent death around every bend, but they thrive off the freedom and connection to nature that it provides. There exists a tie to an ancient, primal society that they both feed off of.
The drama heightens as race day approaches at the conclusion of the book. The ending is full of surprises with several twists and turns. It is open-ended enough to allow for the possibility of a sequel, but it does wrap up quite nicely as a stand alone read.
Overall, this horse story has bite.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater is available for $17.99 at Amazon.com and at MaggieStiefvater.com.
Thank you to Michelle for recommending this book. Follow her fantastic book blog and Twitter posts.
Review copy provided by Valley Community Library.