I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical when I heard that Maggie Stiefvater was writing a book about water horses, the creatures from Scottish myth. Water horses, in case you were wondering, are fairly...er...brutal beasties, with a penchant for eating people and/or jumping off cliffs with them on their backs. They didn't strike me as very good story fodder. In a YA market saturated with vampires and werewolves and ghosts, however, I was willing to give The Scorpio Races a go, mainly because I would read the description on a roll of toilet paper if Ms. Stiefvater wrote it.
This book...this is a different book. It doesn't plop you down in the middle of a immediately romantic tale or whisper about magic. No, it's pretty much: so there's this island and there are horses that love you as much as they want to eat you and this boy is really, really good with them. And there's a girl, too, whose life is coming to a fine point because of the horses. So the bones of the story are there for you right from the start: bare and looming and without any question.
But, somehow, the story doesn't unravel in jarring chunks. (That sentence made me a little queasy, how about you?) Instead, it unfolds quietly. The magic and horror of the water horses is commonplace; how the people in the story go about living their lives around the horses is what Stiefvater decided to show us. Sean, the male protagonist, is quiet and steady, with a world of longing and ideas inside his head. His position is desperate in a simple way: he wants to be free of the wealthy man for whom he works--and he wants the water horse with which he wins the races.
The Scorpio Races of the story? A yearly event taking place in November during which folks die--on the backs and at the teeth of the water horses. Winning the race means you live and get a nice monetary reward. There's a whole lot more about the races I could go into, but weirdly enough, the races seemed almost secondary to me by the end, even though they were the beginning and end of the story.
Anyway, vying for the reward is Puck, the female protagonist of the story (Stiefvater once again uses a two-person narrative.) Orphaned by the horses and trying to keep her family together and on the island she loves, she decides to enter the races on her "real" horse.
You've counted two protagonists, right? But I'm going to step in and say that there are actually four. Ish. Collectively or so. There are Sean and Puck, but there are also the water horses and...weirdly...the island of Thisby on which everybody lives. A cold, rocky, sandy place, it's a mixture of warm small-village life and fear of the horses and need of tourists. It reminds me of the island of Skua from Witch's Daughter by Nina Bawden, a book from my childhood that you need to read after you read The Scorpio Races. Stiefvater really outdoes herself with the imagery here; the island feels like a real place where you can go to drink tea and eat bread and watch (from a safe distance) the capall uisce.
The water horses--now THESE are some freaky creatures. You thought werewolves and vampires were creepy? The water horses blow them away...because they are versions of, you know, real horses. The kind that you love and ride on and watch gallop across a pasture. All of that is there in The Scorpio Races, but there's also a good jolt of horror; the water horses drink blood and stalk people and are fully and completely of a kind of magic that we simply haven't seen much in literature. It is old, wild, untouchable magic.
Understand: this isn't a particularly fast read. It doesn't make you feel like you're rushing headlong down a path like some of Stiefvater's other stories have. (Except, maybe, the parts with Puck, who's a rushy little heroine. I love her; she's so tough and real and awkward.) The story develops slowly and takes time to really let you KNOW the characters and UNDERSTAND the folks on the island and their circumstances.
This also isn't the sort of book that you close and say, "Yay! I loved it! Woohoo!" It's the sort of book you put down and say, "Hmmm..."
And then you make a pot of tea and you sip it and say "Hmmm" some more. And then you go put on warm socks because you feel chilly inside. And then you look at the cover (the book is GORGEOUS--Stiefvater's publisher gifts her with beautifully crafted books) and you tap it with your fingers and go outside in the sunshine and ponder myth.
And you realize that the book makes you think of Witch's Daughter and National Velvet and The Secret of Roan Inish and yet it is so totally different from those stories that you love it just for itself.
Yes, I loved this book. I'm glad I read it and I'm glad Stiefvater reached inside herself to write it. Go read it with a cup of tea and a plate of thick, chewy oatmeal cookies.