Derby of Death: The Scorpio Races Review

Blurb for The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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.

My Review

Coming off the high of really enjoying a book I hadn’t expected to like as much as I did, I was prepared for The Scorpio Races not to live up to my expectations. In some ways, it didn’t. And in some ways, it was better.

The concept and atmosphere of the world is, as always with Stiefvater, really intriguing and well-imagined. It takes place on an island where they race water horses once every year in a violent and almost always fatal dash down a cold November beach, fighting not only with their frenzied mounts, but also each other, as the blue-black ocean with the flesh-eating monsters laps closer with every wave.

So this is a horse book. I didn’t quite clue in to that until quite a ways through because I was distracted by the fact that the opening introduction to the bond between horse and human consists of the human begging the horse not to eat his father. You can see why I was a bit thrown. (Yes, you read that right–two horse puns in as many words. Efficiency.)

Opening up with two different first-person narratives, I also felt a little off-stride at the beginning. I’m not used to Maggie Stiefvater voicing in the first person. Has she written anything else in first person POV? I can’t for the life of me recall. Regardless, the dissonance of the voicing was resolved once I figured out why it was jarring to me, and I was able to relax and enjoy the story and the two POV characters changing leads.

I really settled into the world, which was a seaside town on a small island, coloured in with interesting side characters, local customs, superstition, and of course the dangerous lore of the water horses, or capaill uisce. The main characters’ respective situations, with Puck fighting to keep her family together and Sean fighting to gain freedom for himself and his capaill uisce, are both setup from their established motivations and give them both interesting and conflicting character arcs. Basically, to gain each of their goals, they need to win the race. Despite realizing that they are technically each other’s competition, once they get thrown together throughout the preparatory training, they continue to work together, get to know one another, and of course fall in love.

Something I will say about this work of Stiefvater’s is that the writing, while not quite the voice I’m used to getting from her, manages to capture that magical cast of the environment, even when it seems a bit unlikely that either character would actually think in those words. That is one of the downfalls of the choice to use two different narrators–they get to sounding kind of same-y. But, despite that, I don’t really have any criticism about the voice itself as it gives a salty, mystical, and visceral tangibility to the setting and events.

Although, as Sean and Puck went through rounds of training, doing day-to-day things, and getting to know one another, there are quite a few portions that could have been summarized with no detriment to the story. It could have functioned just as well had it been trimmed down into novella or even short story length. Didn’t I say something similar about another Stiefvater stand-alone? One that also prominently featured a horse? Regardless of any personal preferences I may have about economy of words when it comes to telling a story, I can appreciate that Stiefvater is not afraid to simply sit and exist within the magic of a fictional world of her creation. Nor is it unenjoyable to slow down and take in the scenery throughout this type of book instead of rushing ahead in a mad gallop.

Part of what reconciled me to the pace of the story was the skillful inclusion of a varied and interesting cast of supporting characters. Somehow, there was what seemed like a fair number of family, friends, and people you know to say hi to that helped make the little island town that much more realistic as an environment. And each of these characters had a part to play, some bigger than others, but none got lost in a herd of faceless names. I knew immediately who was being talked about if a character reappeared, which is something that is really hard to write skillfully in a short amount of time spent with the character.

Puck’s younger brother Finn was one of my favourite characters, and the way he was characterized as kind of obsessive compulsive, but also almost ADHD in his hyper-focus, was a cool representation without the story ever becoming about that. I also kind of hated Stiefvater for killing off Puck’s older brother’s friend (I know, I know, he’s such a small part of the story if that’s the only way I remember him). Unlike his friend, Gabe, Puck’s older brother, was a bit hard to care for or understand, partially because he was simply gone for so much of the time. Which is a strange choice, especially considering all of Puck’s motivation hinged on him. And can someone who’s read the book please tell me if we were meant to understand that Gabe and Peg from the pub were having an affair, or if I’m just reading into things that aren’t there?

One slight complaint about content that I debated about mentioning because it’s minor and just gives me a yuck feeling: there’s a part in the book where a woman gropes a man who is a stranger to her in public, not once, but twice, making him clearly hurt and uncomfortable and it is explicitly treated as joke by Puck, the main (female) character, when she observes it happening. What makes it even more egregious is the fact that a chapter later Puck expresses minor discomfort at being lifted up unexpectedly (but completely appropriately) by a male friend. Um, yeah. So, a man being groped in public by a stranger is funny, but a woman being swung around in celebration by a houseguest is what we’re leery about? There was a disconnect with the logic there, like it’s something that just kind of got written in without much thought because I’ve definitely encountered similar things in other media. However, I’d like to think we’ve gotten past treating the sexual harassment of men as a joke. Like I said, it was the way it was played off for a laugh by the main character that made it stand out to me. Not saying a character can’t have flaws, but I don’t think we were meant to see this as a flaw as much as we were meant to laugh with her. So, to quote Caleb Joseph, “yikes to that.”

To conclude, I did enjoy this book, and don’t want the paragraph above to colour anyone’s opinion of the story over all. That is the main and only issue I had, though there are other aspects that might bother some people more: blood, gore, death, terror, hate, cruelty, and casual misogyny (although, unlike the casual misandry, we are meant to actually see it as misogyny and not laugh it away). But that is all part of the hard reality of a life carved out of the treacherous sea, fighting for a place beside the blood-crazed and beautiful capaill uisce.

2 thoughts on “Derby of Death: The Scorpio Races Review”

  1. I came across this book in a friend’s collection some years ago. Being a winter child of viking descent, the world and characters and the water horses captured me. Good summary and good thoughts, especially on the motives and styles of the leads.

    Liked by 1 person

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