The short: 3.5/5 ✦. A fascinating plot with likable characters, but needs more depth and fewer pages.
I had fairly high hopes for this book. It’d gotten good reviews, the cover was intriguing, and the blurb suggested a wild story with a hint of romance.
I’m not exactly disappointed, but it wasn’t what I had been expecting. First, the setting in both place and time is incredible vague, but it’s not in ancient times in a far-off island somewhere. Cars exist and girls can wear pants and there are cameras with huge flash bulbs and America is a place full of rich people. Though Thisby is a fictional town, I got the impression it was near Ireland, a place with fascinating accents and English is a common tongue. This was actually a very interesting choice on Maggie Stiefvater’s part, since magical killer horses seems to be a Old World concept, and mixing that with tourism works pretty well.
Sean and Puck are the two main characters, both of whom I liked very much. Puck is the typical YA heroine who is sassy to authority and rejects the conformity of society, but she was also very vulnerable and emotional in a way I felt was quite realistic, especially when it came to her brothers (Finn was my favorite and the most real character in the entire text; I was strongly reminded of Donatello from TMNT 2012) and their entire difficult situation. Their story felt the most honest to me, perhaps because (though I’m not an orphan) I know what it’s like to worry about money and food and taking care of your siblings and the sacrifices involved in all that. Puck not only rose to the occasion, she overcame her own insecurities and truly became a grown woman. A bit cliché for this type of story, perhaps, but in a very good, satisfying way. (Also, her dealing with the sexism of the town was incredibly frustrating if only because it was unfortunately true to life, regardless of what decade this story takes place.)
Sean’s arc was more stereotypical in that he is the tall, dark, handsome type who only loves his dangerous water horse, Corr, but learns to care for Puck as they train together. His conflict is largely self-centered, though I wouldn’t exactly say it was selfish. He’s had a rough life and continues to be abused by his boss and peers, and you kinda just want to hug him (though he wouldn’t like that at all). Puck helps him grow outside of his own head, and Sean gives her the confidence to be her own person and take action as needed (more of a boost, really, as her impulsive decision to ride in the races was entirely her own).
The races is where the book falters a bit, as multiple reviewers have pointed out. The core of the book is solely on Puck and Sean and their various interactions together and with other characters. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but the title and blurb suggest more than chapter after chapter of character study. The races were actually only one race, and it was not at all as intensive as the lead-up made it sound. The expectation regarding these wild creatures and their bloodthirsty nature suggests there should be much more than that, which is why it disappoints in that aspect.
I was also hoping for more backstory on the island and the horses, or capaill uisce. They are described in fairly good detail, but I still had difficulty locking down on a visual, since they apparently look like real horses, but larger and fishier. One of those instances where pictures would be nice to have! Have they ever been studied or captured? Are they found anywhere else in the world? I also wanted to know more about how the races got started, the precise nature of the magic that allows the capaill to do what they do, and the counteracting magics that the riders use–especially Sean’s seemingly kinder magic that uses knots and words instead of iron. I was expecting more information on how he knows all that and why he’s so good with the water horses. Basically, I wanted all the details.
Despite all that, I quite enjoyed this book and would recommend it–with the caveat that it’s not as thrilling as one might expect. The writing is quite excellent, and though it’s slow, the plot trundles along consistently and smoothly. What it lacks in exposition and excitement, it mostly makes up for with the characters.
What did you think? Sound off in the comments below!
Header image: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, published October 18, 2011 by Scholastic Press.