The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater
The best fantasy writing makes you believe completely in the validity of the story, and by that criteria, Maggie Stiefvater’s young adult novel The Scorpio Races is certainly a winner.
The story is set on Thisby, a mythical island off Ireland or Scotland in an otherwise normal world. Thisby is a misty, Brigadoon-like mecca for horse lovers because it’s the place where the capaill uisce, the beautiful, terrifying water horses, emerge from the sea. For unclear reasons, they come ashore every November, when some of the most daring locals dare to capture and ride them in the annual Scorpio Races. The races are both thrilling and horrifying, a bloody spectacle in which some riders are inevitably killed as the capaill uisce charge along the beach, bite each other and anything else in reach, and frequently resist their riders to plunge back into the ocean.
The atmospheric island has little else to recommend it. Sure, it’s scenic, but it’s also a difficult place to make a life, with wild weather, little food, entrenched ways and only a few wealthy landlords who dominate the other locals. Most young people leave the island for adventures on the mainland or in America, and as the novel opens, Puck Connolly’s older brother Gabe announces that he plans to leave as well. That’s a problem because Puck, her somewhat compulsive younger brother Finn, and Gabe are orphans left behind after their parents were killed by the water horses and Gabe has been supporting them. To stall Gabe’s departure and perhaps to win enough money to save their home, Puck decides to ride in the Scorpio Races, although a woman has never competed and she’ll have to ride her speedy but undersized mare Dove instead of a capaill uisce.
One of her competitors is Sean Kendrick, a young man who has won more Scorpio Races than any other rider, but who has been trapped by Terence Malvern (the same man who is foreclosing on Puck’s house) into working in his stables. Sean loves riding Corr–the fierce red water horse on which he’s won so many races–more than anything else, but Malvern owns Corr and keeps Sean in line by refusing to sell him. Sean’s tenth share of his race winnings have made him wealthy by island standards, but not compared to Malvern who still controls the only thing Sean wants. Sean’s life is further complicated by the jealousy of Malvern’s horrible son, Mutt.
The lives of these two riders become entwined as the book continues and they rise from mutual frustration to grudging respect to romance, but their survival is constantly threatened, their personal problems seem insurmountable, and their final goals are in conflict. Surrounding them with quirky islanders, a mysterious American visitor, and the sometimes thrilling, sometimes terrifying water horses, Stiefvater weaves a tale that will keep you enthralled from start to finish. I felt like I’d run in my own Scorpio Race by the time I was done, and I certainly came away a winner.
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Or try The Scorpio Races as an audiobook