Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Reviews - The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races
Every year in November, the seas surrounding the Isle of Thisby foam with the emerging bodies of capall uisce - violent, flesh eating water horses, faster than any mount on land. And every year, tourists flock to the small island to watch the Scorpio Races. Often, riders die, but the money and glory of winning propels men to enter year after year.

Puck Connolly, the first girl ever to sign her name up for the races, knows that prize is her family's last chance to pay off their debts and save their home.

Returning champion Sean Kendrick has won the races three times, but this year he's got far more riding on victory than money or fame.

But as the seas grow wild with the November winds, neither is ready for what awaits them on the beach.

What makes it so good:

If you ask me, Maggie Stiefvater is one of the least pretentious writers I have ever read. When I read her books, I get the sense that she doesn't care what you think of her. She doesn't care if you think she's smart or clever. She doesn't care how you label her work. All she cares about is telling the best possible story she can, and that emotional honesty is what makes The Scorpio Races so moving.

I first came across Stiefvater in the library when one of her other books caught my eye - Shiver. The cover image was just so beautiful and intriguing. Then I realized it was a paranormal werewolf romance and promptly put it back on the shelf. It's no longer one of my prouder moments.

Shiver, I'm so so sorry.

I started to wonder if I'd judged Shiver too harshly when I heard about The Scorpio Races. There's a nice little medal on the cover of the book and my curiosity is always piqued when major awards are handed out to science fiction and fantasy novels. Still, I didn't get around to it. Not until I got a kick in the pants from Melissa, one of my MFA classmates. We were studying YA fiction and, as a class, we'd eviscerated another paranormal romance novel that had been assigned to us. Melissa braved our snide remarks and proudly brought her copy of Shiver to a later class. If we wanted to read paranormal romance - good paranormal romance - she promised us that Maggie Stiefvater was where we would find it.

Sure enough, Shiver is a pretty good book. Paranormal romance never has been (and likely never will be) my particular niche, but I could see why Melissa loved it. It was a story passionately told, with strong characters and lovely images. But the book that blew me away did turn out to be The Scorpio Races.

I've seen this novel labeled a few ways. Sometimes it gets called a paranormal, sometimes just a fantasy. In her author's note, Stiefvater herself notes that on some level, it's a dressed up version of one of the oldest chick-lit standbys ever: The sexy horse story. But oddly enough, I think the label that best fits it is one I've never seen her use. One so many other authors clamor for but never really earn - not the way Stiefvater does. This book is straight up magical realism.

What is magical realism? There's a couple ways of defining it, but I'm going to go with a definition based on plot. Magical realism is a story that's roughly 80% reality and only 20% fantasy. It's life as we usually know it, but shifted ever so slightly. Magic has an ordinary quality to it and in some cases, it might be debatable if it's even there.

This label definitely works for The Scorpio Races because Thisby is one of the most ordinary, real and emotionally compelling settings I've ever read about. Yes, the horses happen to be able to eat people. But at the end of the day, this is a story about a girl who is struggling to connect to her brothers. It's about a young man who can't get the respect he deserves from his boss. It's about American tourists buying cheap knock-offs of Irish lore. It's about loving the wind and the sea and small places and, most of all, loving an animal.

So many books want to call themselves magical realism because it carries the connotation that it's not like "normal" fantasy. No, instead it is "real." It's "literary." I dislike the idea that literary writing is confined to any sub genre of fantasy. But oddly enough, it's still all the more reason Stiefvater could have plucked up that label without a problem. The book is beautiful and has a literary quality to it that we could always use more of in YA. But Stiefvater never seemed to care about that. She only cared about Puck, Sean and the island of Thisby. And it's exactly for those reasons that she achieved that real, authentic, engaging voice that sets this book apart.

What could have made it better:

So... going in to this book... I really thought it was going to be about racing flesh eating horses. And yeah, it sort of is. But once I was about a third in I had this moment where I went, "oh... wait... the race, is like, gonna be the climax, isn't it? We're not going to get to it until the end? Oh... Okay..."

Spoiler alert: The race is the climax.

The rest of the book is more concerned with building up towards the race and making sure you really know and feel the stakes. There's a sense of dread by the time the race actually comes, which is great. But be aware that this is not a fast-paced adventure book.

This is not a bad thing entirely. At it's core, the story is about more than racing horses and it's about more than bashing the reader over the head with elements of danger. But as a result, the middle can be a little slow. Stiefvater does a decent enough job of keeping the tension alive throughout, but I can certainly point to a few chapters that wandered around a bit much for my taste. There are some scenes that could have benefited from tightening up. A romp this is not.

But within the fantasy world, its a refreshing change of pace. It's about more than swords and sorcerers. It's about us - ordinary people with ordinary problems with extraordinary horses. So do yourself a favor and do what Melissa would do: grab yourself a copy and get ready to be swept away.

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