Title: The Scorpio Races

Author: Maggie Steifvater

Grades 8-12

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Publication Date: January 1, 2011

I have been a Maggie Stiefvater fan for several years. I was excited to hear about her upcoming stand-alone novel, set in a completely different world than her Shiver or Ballad series. I was also interested to read a take on a legend that hasn’t been done to death–magical water horses that rise from the surf. Luckily, The Scorpio Races did not disappoint.

Warning: mild spoilers ahead.

Synopsis from Goodreads: 

Puck (Kate) Connolly is an orphan, her parents killed by the water horses (cappall usice, pronounced copple ooshka) years ago. She lives with her brothers, Finn and Gabe, on the island of Thisby, a beautiful but desolate place where making a living is difficult and many locals abandon the island for the mainland. Thisby is challenging not only for economic reasons, but also due to the cappall usice and the violence that is a result of their presence both in the water and on the beach. The culmination of this violence is seen every year at the Scorpio Races, where residents mount the water horses and compete in a deadly race for win glory and riches. When Puck learns that Gabe plans to leave the island, and that they are about to lose their home, she decides she has no choice but to enter the Scorpio Races and take her chances.

Sean Kendrick’s father was also killed by a cappall usice. Despite this fact, Sean has developed a way with the water horses that make him a valuable employee to Benjamin Malvern, the wealthiest stable owner on the island. Sean’s talents have also caused Mr. Malvern’s son Mutt to hate and envy him, a rivalry that ultimately has brutal consequences. Sean wants to win this year’s Scorpio Races not only because it’s expected of him, but because winning might give him the chance to purchase his favorite water horse and strike out on his own.

Puck and Sean are both sympathetic characters. The island is also populated with interesting personalities that provide some comic relief. The main antagonist is so despicable he verges on being a one-note character, but Stiefvater gives him motivation for his horrible behavior. The love story between Puck and Sean builds slowly but realistically, especially given the circumstances and personalities of the pair. Sean and Puck are brave, hard-working and persistent. You can’t help rooting for them both even though only one can win.

The odds continue to stack up against both characters throughout the story, making the suspense nearly unbearable at some points. Puck faces not only the violence of the horses, but also opposition because she is the first girl to enter the contest in the island’s history. Sean feels compelled to win while also protecting Puck and helping her to succeed. AGH! So much at stake!!!

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Book Review

I sometimes have a hard time finishing books with sad/violent incidents involving animals (or children). Even knowing it’s fiction, those scenes are hard to read and even harder to forget–that’s just me. 🙂 If you are the same, there are a couple of scenes in The Scorpio Races that may be tough to read. These horses are killers and carnivorous and there are drownings and maimings and some ruthless humans, too. But none of it is gratuitous– it all serves the story, and adds to the weight of the task that both Puck and Sean have undertaken. Despite the fact that there are several heartbreaking scenes, I was still unable to put the book down.

One thing I appreciated most about this book was the author’s decision not to delve into the origins of the water horses and how they came to exist. Others may disagree, but I approve because, A) I didn’t miss the full origin story with so much else going on, and B) it made the presence of the cappall usice a given, a fact of life to accept and move on, and therefore made Thisby seem more like a real place. The Scorpio Races has supernatural elements, obviously, but it read as much like a historical novel as a fantasy adventure.

The writing is outstanding, the story compelling, and the characters real and sympathetic. I expect to see award nominations for this title. You will definitely want to add it to your YA collection this October–teens will be lining up to read it.

I would recommend this book to Stiefvater fans, teens who enjoyed The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, and readers who enjoy reinterpretations of legends and folklore. Highly recommended.

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