A Race Against Time
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Credit where credit’s due: whatever else a young adult fiction novel may be lacking, it’s usually strong in the creativity of its premise. Now that sparkling vampires and werewolves and boy wizards have been pretty thoroughly mined, it’s time to move on to the B-list creatures of myth, like… meat-eating bloodthirsty horses that live in the ocean? And… the weathered, hard-hearted islanders who love (and are often eaten by) them? Welcome to The Scorpio Races!
The story is set on the tiny, fictitious island of Thisby (which, culturally, seems rather Irish), possibly in the second half of the twentieth century but also possibly in an alternate universe: they have spray-paint cans and automobiles, but not TV or cellphones, and islanders still wear traditional, hideous garments made of draped and pinned lengths of wool. Thisby’s claim to fame is that this is the only place where men capture and ride the capaill uisce (KAP-uhl ISH-ka), deadly and carnivorous horses that live in the stormy sea and can only be tamed with magic. Each November, riders race their capaill uisce down the beach for a chance at the purse, and the island’s tourism business booms — hopefully, enough for the locals to cling on for another year until the next race.
Sean Kendrick, at 19, is the four-time champion of the races; orphaned at a young age, he works for the brutish, greedy owner of the Malvern stables, and his only dream is to own his prize-winning water horse, the red stallion Corr. Kate “Puck” Connelly, on the other hand, never dreamed of riding in the traditionally male Scorpio Races — until her parents died, her older brother Gabe decided to move to the mainland, and Malvern threatened to evict the Connelly children from their house for not making payments. Now, winning the race and the cash prizes is her only chance at keeping her once-close family together. Despite hostile opposition from the islanders at the notion of a female rider, Sean admires Puck’s pluck and decides to help her train… but they can’t both win. Whose dream will be the one to come true?
Although it takes place on an island rather than a moor, there’s an awful lot of wuthering in this book. You know what I mean: characters standing dramatically on cliff tops, hair streaming in the wind, gazing at the sky with melancholy eyes or shaking their fists at the rain-soaked heavens. Maybe that’s what happens when you live in a quaint, rural village full of pubs and fishermen and fat sheep, where the hottest job prospect is an apprenticeship with the butcher. At any rate, Stiefvater writes colorfully and evocatively enough to make Thisby’s gritty, violent, impoverished life sound almost appealing; you can understand both why some fall in love with the place and never want to leave, and why some can’t get off the island fast enough.
The book is called The Scorpio Races, though, not Scenes from Thisby Island, and we don’t even get to the races until the final pages. Sean and Puck, unfortunately, aren’t nearly as interesting as their setting, and it’s difficult to sustain interest in the glacial pace of their developing romance (c’mon, you saw that one coming). With such a wuthering, slow-moving plot, there’s plenty of time to consider questions such as, “Don’t any of these kids go to school?” and, “If both parents died in an accident, wouldn’t some sort of social agency come to check up on their three minor children?”
Oh, I suppose Scorpio gets points for having a spunky, independent heroine who knows she’s battling her community’s narrow-minded, sexist worldview and doesn’t let that slow her down. But this stark, violent story, with a fatal horse mauling in every other chapter, isn’t for the faint of heart. If you’re trying to talk your teen out of summer horse camp — or if she’s taken to customizing her My Little Ponies with black Sharpie and metal spikes — this unconventional girl-and-her-horse tale might be just the thing to get a young reader’s pulse racing.