On the windswept island of Thisby, capaill uisce, or water horses, dominate life. Every year, these water horses emerge from the surf on the beaches lining the island, and are caught by islanders to race in the infamous Scorpio Races; an often fatal race of the brutal creatures in which the victor gains glory and riches.
Sean Kendrick knows the races well: he’s a seasoned racer, winning four times out of the six that he’s taken part in. His ability to calm even the most agitated or violent of the capaill uisce has earned him a reputation on the island for his abilities.
Puck Connolly has never ridden in the races, but this year she feels like she has no choice – the money from winning the prize could be life-changing for her family. The first girl to race, she’s no idea what the races really entail.
Both lost parents to the capaill uisce. Both are struggling to get by. Drawn together in a time when you can trust no one, this is more than just a race.
The setting of this book is slightly ambiguous – while it’s easy to get a sense of the atmosphere and look of the island, there’s little detail on where and when the book is set. In terms of the former, I inferred that it was probably set off the coast of Ireland or Scotland, because of some of the references in the book, but it’s open for us to interpret. I found the latter more challenging: once again, it was a matter of picking up details in the book, but I settled on mid-twentieth century, but I’m still not sure. There wasn’t any reference to events outside of the island, such as World Wars or important cultural moments, which as well as adding to the mystery of the when the book is set also demonstrates that Thisby is an insular community. Nothing on the outside matters to them, and the closest they get to the outside world is when visitors from the mainland flock to the island for the races. There’s nothing wrong with leaving room for inference and interpretation, but for the bustling streets of Skarmouth or the residents of Thisby to come to life, maybe more explicit details of time and place would have helped. Nevertheless, the author’s writing style was descriptive without being verbose, and kept the story flowing well, with different characters weaving seamlessly into the narrative.
It’s this writing style that distracts from the fact that although this book is called Scorpio Races, the synonymous event doesn’t actually start until page 454, with a quick 26-page-or-so wrap-up at the end. There were times when I wished that it would just cut to the race, but other times when I appreciated the build-up as time to forge the character’s relationships and set up the parameters of the concept of the water horses. Either way, this is something to bear in mind; this book isn’t full of action (but there are some quite gory moments in the book).
I liked Puck – she had attitude without being rude or disagreeable, and had many positive traits that meant I really rooted for her. Sean, on the other hand, was more mysterious and hard to read – an intentional choice by the author, but sometimes frustrating. When he did open up and we saw glimpses of his emotions and feelings, however, I did begin to warm towards his character. They worked well together as protagonists. The book is told in alternating points of view; my views on this method of storytelling can be found here so I won’t go into to much detail, but I think that the story wouldn’t have worked from only one point of view – as the characters don’t meet immediately at the beginning of the book and aren’t always in each other’s immediate vicinity, it made sense. The “voices” were quite similar, but I’ve gotten into the habit of always checking at the start of each chapter to see who’s point of view it is from, so that wasn’t too much of an issue.
Overall, the mystery of the water horses and the mystery of location and place made this an intriguing book to read, and you’ll realise that it’s about much more than the race and the water horses, thanks to Stiefvater’s character building and the growth that they undergo as the story progresses. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the book – how does it measure up to other novels by the same author? How did you feel about the long buildup?
Take care, Al.