The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

  • Title: The Scorpio Races
  • Author: Maggie Stiefvater
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 054522490X
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 416
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: fantasy
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Maggie Stiefvater is a young adult author who has written numerous books for teenagers. Her website includes posts from her blogs, which focus on what is currently going on in her life (such as travel, new books she’s working on, and videos and articles she finds interesting) as well as a link to her Twitter feed. Her website also has a tab that includes information and purchase links to all of her books. It also includes appearance information and a short biography about Stiefvater. Publisher’s Weekly interviewed Stiefvater about The Scorpio Races, and she talked about her inspiration for the book (she wrote a short story on the topic of water horses and always wanted to expand on it) as well as the likelihood of a sequel (not likely, although she’s often asked). The interview also covers her relationships with her family and her love of music and the influence music has had on her life.

Reviews: Horn Book, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal all gave this title starred reviews. Many of the reviews mention the uniqueness of the title and the fact that it has cross-over appeal to a wide variety of readers (those who like romance, horses, action, etc.). Some of the reviews also mention the compelling character and world building that occurs, which is sure to attract and delight readers. Booklist says, “this seems to have a shot at being a YA blockbuster”, and all of the reviews are in agreement that this is a book worth reading.

Readers annotation: When the races begin, somebody will die.

Summary: Sean Kendrick participates in the Scorpio Races every year, and has won for the past four. Puck Connolly has never ridden in the races, but decides to do so for the first time in order to save her family’s home and delay her brother’s departure to the mainland. Each year, people die during the race, victims of the vicious water horses that they capture and ride Puck decides to ride her own horse, Dove, instead of a water horse, but many participants are angry that she is doing so, and angry at the fact that, as a girl, she is riding at all. She trains Dove in spite of this backlash, befriending Sean Kendrick along the way. Sean is the only rider who sticks up for her and takes her seriously, and a romance blossoms. On the day of the race, Sean’s employer’s son, who is viciously jealous of Sean, has his water horse attack Puck and Dove. Sean intervenes to save them, and Puck ends up winning the race. She uses her winnings to save her home and buy Corr, Sean’s water horse, for Sean.

Evaluation: This book has a fresh concept and builds upon mythology and folkloric tradition, the water horse myth, that is not often explored in literature. This premise will attract readers, and the gripping first pages of the novel, in which Stiefvater introduces how deadly the water horses can be, will intrigue them enough to continue reading. Unfortunately, the majority of the book does not live up to the dramatic and sinister promise of the first pages of the book. Although there is plenty of action and the water horses fulfill their promise of grisly killing, the pacing of the book overall is slower than one would expect from a book about horse racing. Stiefvater spends quite a bit of time developing her characters and fleshing out the world of Thisby, but this comes at the expense of keeping the plot moving forward. On a personal note, this title took me over a month to read, because I kept getting distracted by other books and was not invested enough in the narrative to focus my attention on this title for long periods of time. The world and character building is impressive, and will engage readers who prioritize this over pacing and action, but readers who pick this up expecting a lightning-fast read full of mythological beasts, killings, and racing, as promised by the book description and first chapter, will be disappointed. Readers who stick with the book to the end will find satisfaction, as Stiefvater wraps up the plot in a way in which all of her carefully crafted characters get what they deserve.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  Stiefvater shows mastery in creating a realistic world and sympathetic characters. The way the novel is presented in regards to its back cover description, first chapter, and front cover are slightly misleading. The plot is slow-paced but believable and the ending is satisfying.
  • Popularity: 3/5 Many readers who are initially attracted to this title might not make it past the first few chapters. Readers looking for high action or a deep mythological basis will likely be disappointed; readers who like strong characters and an expansive and well-crafted world will find much to enjoy.
  • Appeal factors: horses, character and world building, happy endings, mythology.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who are looking for another title based in obscure mythology may enjoy Karen Healey’s The Guardian of the Dead. This title is based in Maori mythology, and, like Stiefvater’s title, is dark and full of murderous mythological creatures. Also, like The Scorpio Races, this book has a strong female protagonist that will remind readers in many ways of Puck.

Book talk ideas: Stiefvater and her publishers came up with the best book talk and most compelling way to get teenagers to read her book. It is the first sentence of the novel and is prominently featured on the cover of the book: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die”. This immediately sets up the urgency of the story and gets readers’ attention and makes them want to learn more. Start the book talk with that, and then describe the island of Thisby and how it is populated with murderous, beautiful, terrifying water horses, who locals race each year in a contest that causes many riders their lives. Explain that both Puck and Sean have their reasons for riding in the race and need to win in order to get their happy endings, but only one of them can be the victor.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What does the relationship between the humans and the water horses say about humankind’s relationship to nature?
  2. Do the characters in the novel all get happy endings? Why or why not?
  3. The novel alternates between Sean and Puck’s points of view. How does this enhance the narrative?

Reason for reading: This book has been on my to-read list for awhile. I knew that it incorporated elements of mythology (water horses) into the narrative, and I’m a sucker for any books that are based in mythology or folklore and I wasn’t familiar with many water horse myths and thought it would be an interesting read. I’d also heard good things about Stiefvater’s books and was interested in reading some for myself.

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