This captivating story, set on the west coast of Ireland on the island of Thisby, weaves a magical tale incorporating the myth of the Irish capaill uisce [pronounced CAPple ISHka] – dangerous fairy horses from the water.
Every November these flesh-eating horses emerge from the water and some get captured by the men from Thisby. The horses are kept in line by being fed animal blood, and then the town holds “The Scorpio Races” by the sea, with riders striving to keep the animals from returning to the water before the finish line. Every year, someone dies.
Sean Kendrick lost his father when he was ten to the capaill uisce, but Sean can’t stay away from the horses or the sea. The Scorpio races make him feel more alive than anything else.
Kate Connolly, called Puck, was also orphaned by the capaill uisce, but like Sean, nevertheless feels a deep connection to her home and its traditions:
“Thisby’s tiny: four thousand people on a rocky crag jutting from the sea, hours from the mainland. It’s all cliffs and horses and sheep and one-track roads winding past treeless fields to Skarmouth, the largest town on the island. The truth is, until you know any different, the island is enough.
Actually, I know different. And it’s still enough.”
This year, Puck’s house is about to be foreclosed, and she, her older brother Gabe, and her younger brother Finn will be turned out. Puck decides to enter the Scorpio Races for the winner’s purse, but she faces a number of barriers: She only has a “regular” horse, a bay named Dove, on which to compete. She also will be going up against Sean, who has won four different times on his magnificent capall uisce, Corr. [capall uisce is the singular form of capaill uisce] And most importantly, she will be going up against a field entirely of men, who chafe at the idea of a female participating in the races. Sean thinks she is the bravest person he has ever seen.
The night before the races, Sean goes up to sit with Puck as she watches the sun set over the cliffs and into the sea that she loves as much as he does. Sean, narrating in alternate chapters with Puck, recounts:
“I draw myself up next to her and look at her profile, making no effort to disguise my attention, here, where there is only Puck to see me. The evening sun loves her throat and her cheekbones. Her hair the color of cliff grass rises and falls over her face in the breeze. ….
…Puck doesn’t look away from the orange glow at the end of the world. ‘Tell me what it’s like. The race.’
What it’s like is a battle. A mess of horses and men and blood. The fastest and strongest of what is left from two weeks of preparation on the sand. It’s the surf in your face, the deadly magic of November on your skin, the Scorpio drums in the place of your heartbeat. It’s speed, if you’re lucky. It’s life and it’s death or it’s both and there’s nothing like it….”
When Puck looks back at Sean, she is “fierce and red, indestructible and changeable, everything that makes Thisby what it is.”
Before meeting Puck, the fairy horse Corr was Sean’s only family. But Corr is not technically his, and if Sean doesn’t win the race, Sean’s boss is threatening to take Corr away. Thus, both Sean and Puck are racing for their very hearts and souls, but they know only one of them can win. And, as much as each of them wants to win, they have begun to care too much about each other to see the other one lose.
Evaluation: This enchanting tale spun from Irish mythology puts you right beside the sea, tasting the salt water in the air and the honeyed goodness of “November cakes,” feeling the grit of sand on your feet, and seeing dark shapes in the crashing surf. There is so much to make you feel good in this book: the lines describing love and family wrap around you like a warm and cozy quilt on a cold winter day. Then you cast your quilt aside as the cautious pas de deux between Puck and Sean pulls you into the firelit circle around their dance, and convinces you of everything glorious you ever believed about dreams for the future; living life to its fullest; and most of all, about enduring and everlasting love.
Published by Scholastic Press, 2011
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominee for Children’s Literature (2012)
Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee for Young Adult Literature (2011)
Michael L. Printz Award Nominee (2012)
Milwaukee County Teen Book Award Nominee (2013)
The Inky Awards Nominee for Silver Inky (2012)
Carnegie Medal Nominee (2013)
Note #1: For those of you in search of “swoon-worthy” boyfriends, Maggie Stiefvater never fails to deliver!
Note #2: We (re)rented “The Secret of Roan Inish” directed by John Sayles to see how much we were reminded of The Scorpio Races. The Sayles movie is about the Irish legend of the Selkies, half seal and half human. I have to say Maggie Stiefvater’s story is more beautiful, but there are enough similarities to recommend this movie to you if you love this book.
Yet Another Note: When you read the book, you will find that the girls are swooning over Sean, but the guys are swooning over November Cakes, the scrumptious-sounding pastries baked each year by townspeople in honor of the Scorpio Races. Maggie Stiefvater posted a recipe for them on her blog here.