The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater is the story of two lonely orphans growing up on a lonely island surrounded by the lonely Scorpio Sea. Every autumn, for one month, that cold, dark sea sets the lonely capaill uisce upon the shores of the Island of Thisby. Pronounced CAPple ISHka, the almost otherworldly water horses are as vicious as they are stunning, living with their hooves on the land and their hearts in the sea.
When the black waters of the Scorpio release them upon the land, they both tantalize and terrorize the islanders. They are dangerous creatures: massive, powerful, flesh-eating horses who are as unpredictable as the ocean itself. They are also fast, and the people of Thisby can’t help but be drawn to them, anymore than the horses can’t help being drawn back to the waters from which they came. Haunted as they are haunting, the capaill uisce have cast their siren-like shadow upon Thisby and its people from before memory began, resulting in the annual Scorpio Races.
For no one but the foolish and the brave, the Scorpio Races are the yearly attempt made by riders to harness the power of the capaill and ride them across the sand of Thisby’s cliff-capped beaches. Captured in name only, the capaill lining the land are as dangerous as those lurking close to the shoreline, their longing to return to the water and their kin heightened during the wind-whipped month of November. The bold and brazen who ride in the race are not merely focused on the finish line: They must be on guard against the racehorses they oppose, the horses still hiding in the water, even the very horse they ride. On the day of the Scorpio Races it is certain: There is only one winner, and many will die in the bone-crushing fight.
It is this wild, scream-pierced fray that looms ahead of Sean Kendrick and Puck Connolly. The island, the sea, and the capaill uisce have shaped the lives of these two silent, stony teens. Both are orphans. Both trust no one. Both are as connected to Thisby as the cliffs that surround her shores.
But Sean is a horse whisperer; he has won the race four of the last six years; and he rides Corr, the fastest capall uisce in existence. Then there is Puck, breaking the two unspoken rules of the race that have existed from before memory began: She is a woman; and her horse, Dove, is not a capall uisce. The future of each is dependant upon winning the race purse. But as they train for the race and steel themselves for the unknown, each must reckon with the realization that they will accomplish more if they work together. And yet still—only one can win.
The Scorpio Races is captivating. Shaped by the many Celtic legends surrounding the mythical water horse, Stiefvater’s story deftly fuses the imaginary with the realistic, creating a world where horses who can live on the land but long for the sea are as palpable as the dirt and grit and sea-salt wind that define life for Puck and Sean. Switching between the two characters, the first-person, present-tense narrative gives the story both a fast pace and a fresh, modern voice, despite the mid-20th century Celtic island setting.
Stiefvater's young protagonists are soul-bound to their raw island home, and she vividly describes their land and why they love it. But their character-shaping struggles and young perspectives keep the landscape of Thisby and its people from becoming a stereotypical place of old men in fishing caps.
While there is a minor amount of cursing and derogatory language, it’s nothing that wouldn’t be heard if visiting Thisby to take in the races yourself. Also, chapters 28-32 cover “the great Scorpio Festival,” a night of celebratory revelry that kicks off the race season. The event culminates with the racers parading through town and shedding a drop of their blood on a stone in a symbolic act of good luck before the race. A “horse goddess” marches dramatically in the parade as well, tossing sand and race wishes upon the crowd. While both the goddess and the ceremony echo the Celtic pagan tradition, it all seems to be a performance based on cultural superstition that hearkens back to Thisby heritage and history, rather than actual pagan worship.
The Scorpio Races touches on themes of identity, belonging, courage, forgiveness, trust, and love. Puck, Sean, the capaill uisce, and even the island itself are lonely and neglected characters. They struggle to figure out how they fit into a world set on crushing their spirits and dictating who they should become. The struggle renders each seemingly cold, unknowable, and tenacious. But this year’s Scorpio Races will demonstrate the power of unshakable character and unrelenting heart.
Image copyright Scholastic Press. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Annie Provencher is a writer living in Virginia.