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red book cover showing a black silhouette illustration of a rearing horse - a curlicue design is placed over the top of the horse and if you look closely the swirls create the outline of a heart

He jerks his head towards me so fast that I have an iron rod out of my pocket before he's finished his turn. But he wasn't attacking, merely moving to study me with his good eye.

I trust Corr more than any of them.

I should not trust him at all.

His neck is soft, though the skin around his eyes is tight, so into the surf we go. I let me breath out in a rush as the cold water creeps up my ankles. And then we stand there, and I watch him again, seeing what effect the magic eddying around his ankles has. He shivers but doesn't tense; we have done this before and the month is young. I cup a handful of salt water and tip it on to his shoulder, my lips pressed against his skin, whispering. Still he stands. So I stand with him and let the gritty surf work on my tired feet.

"Did you ever wonder…" Holly says, after a pause. "No, perhaps you don't. Perhaps you know. If anyone knows, you do. I've been wondering as I've been here, why it is that Thisby has the capaill uisce and no one else does?"

"Because we love them."

Why do I read? Well, there's an answer I would give if I thought I could trust it to be handled carefully. Can I trust you, readers? Let's take a leap and believe for a second that I can. Why do I read? Why do I spend so much time taking in media and then turning it over in my mind? Well, I am looking for a feeling.

It's a very particular kind of feeling, like being examined seriously and carefully by someone who understands; like being listened to fully and examined on your own terms; like being talked to openly with the expectation that you will reciprocate the trust. It's like being held firmly against someone's chest and feeling the beat of their heart. For me, a book generally produces that feeling of careful handling by addressing life as if, even though its answers are always multi-faceted and difficult to grasp, it is still important to try to look at life closely and meticulously. When authors fill their books with this kind of earnest, careful approach they encourage me to respond in kind towards their story1 - reading becomes an especially reciprocal relationship; the book shows all kind of angles, and trusts that I'll examine its complex vision of the world fully. And because it does that I trust the book to make sure I'll be satisfied at the end of its story. All readerly suspicion is washed away for the duration of the tale and I feel I can approach the story in good faith without the need to raise protective barriers. That freedom from mistrust pulls me in and makes me feel especially connected to the story. Feeling free encourages me to read on alert but with my shields down.

With its detailed depiction of life on a small island and crafted exploration of character, Maggie Stiefvater's "The Scorpio Races" carefully but firmly convinced me at every step that I had nothing to fear from this book. I had no reason to harden my heart and defend myself. I mean, no reason besides the killer horses, the hard hearts of men and the island of Thisby, indifferent to its inhabitants' survival, which were all contained within its pages.

At the centre of "The Scorpio Races" is a sub-textual call and response between the question 'How can you love a monster?' and 'How can you not?' Sean Kendrick loves a monster — a red capall uisce stallion, one of the deadly, magical water horses of Thisby, which he has named Corr. In the opening prologue, Sean sees his father killed in the Scorpio Races — the annual race of the water horses. Now older, four time winner of the races himself, and not dissuaded from loving the capaill uisce by his father's death, Sean works for Benjamin Malvern, Corr's owner, selling his service and his freedom for the painful joy of having his heart tied to a water horse that cannot be trusted. Although he knows not to trust the capaill, deep down, he can't conceive of not loving Corr despite the horse's vicious nature.

When Puck Connelly, daughter of Thisby, whose parents were both killed by the capaill uisce, begins to get to know Sean and sees him with Corr she understandably wonders how he can love these violent horses. However, it quickly becomes clear that the same pair of call and response questions that inform Sean's life also haunt her storyline. Puck determines to ride in the races and win the cash prize after she finds out that her family house is being repossessed and her brother Gabe intends to leave the island. She will do anything, even try to mount a capall uisce, to ensure that she can stay on the island. And at the beginning of the novel she uses her involvement in the races as a way to keep Gabe on an island he is desperate to escape. Before long, the reader comes to realise that Puck is just as tied to her own monster, the dangerous island she loves and will never leave, as Sean is to Corr.

'Monster' may seem an odd word to use to describe an inanimate island, even though Thisby is the only place the murderous capaill uisce emerge from the water, but it feels accurate. There's a sense of menace and foreboding that pervades the island. "The Scorpio Races" is very firmly a horror novel and, without overplaying its hand, it manages to consistently evoke the creepy side of Thisby's landscape: the side that makes readers feel it is natural for killer water horses to frequent its shores:

When I was eight, the October wind brought a storm that twisted the sea around Thisby. Days before the rain came, the clouds hugged the horizon and the ocean crawled high up on the rocks, hungry for the warmth of our homes. My mother cried and covered her ears when the shingles on the roof chattered like teeth.

However, there's another side to the island, the side Puck and Sean see clearly, which proves that 'monster' is only a partially accurate description of the multi-faceted Thisby:

'As the sun shines low and red across the water, I wade into the ocean. The water is still high and brown and murky with the memory of the storm, so if there’s something below it, I won’t know it. But that’s part of this, the not knowing. The surrender to the possibilities beneath the surface. It wasn’t the ocean that killed my father, in the end. The water is so cold that my feet go numb almost at once. I stretch my arms out to either side of me and close my eyes. I listen to the sound of water hitting water. The raucous cries of the terns and the guillemots in the rocks of the shore, the piercing, hoarse questions of the gulls above me. I smell seaweed and fish and the dusky scent of the nesting birds onshore. Salt coats my lips, crusts my eyelashes. I feel the cold press against my body. The sand shifts and sucks out from under my feet in the tide. I’m perfectly still. The sun is red behind my eyelids. The ocean will not shift me and the cold will not take me.'

"The Scorpio Races", like "The Snow Child", is a book which depicts the wonder of nature without sentimentalising it and the raw, dangerous side of the wild without letting that obscuring the wonder. The novel gets this picture of the danger and beauty of the wild over at the same time without compromising either element, and manages to explain why the danger and roughness may in fact be part of nature's beauty. Both Sean and Puck show through their narratives just what there is to love about the island and Corr:

'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."'

As the novel progresses the reader begins to see that the monstrosity of the island and the capaill uisce may simply be the workings of 'nature red in tooth and claw'. It would be strange to call a regular predator 'evil' (unless your hero is Captain Ahab) and, if the circumstances were right, we might admire a predator from afar, even come to love it, while keeping a healthy respect for its power and cunning desire to eat us. Why are the rugged landscape of Thisby, which could kill humans without caring, or the capaill uisce any different? As the book progressed, I began to wonder if perhaps the magical origins of the horses and their proximity to humans changes a human view of their actions making them into monsters rather than something akin to a hungry bear, or a leopard.

I think that's sort of how Sean sees the capaill uisce — as magnificent predators to be respected and loved. You have to be a special person to maintain that understanding of nature while you're in the thick of its unsympathetic effects; Sean is a taciturn man who is more in tune with the land and animals than with his own species — a reimagining of a traditional wild man or bush man character. He is respectful of nature's dangers, but loves it too and is most alive when caught up in its wildness. He makes an art out of being still. He's also a little bit disconnected from wider humanity. Sean loves his horse, but not much else until he meets Puck. As he tells Puck 'other people have never been important to me'.

Puck is also full of a deep love for nature, the island, and horses, although she is not nearly as remote as Sean. She has her family and she is slightly horrified at the way Sean shrugs off deaths caused by the capaill uisce. Humans mean as much to her as her horse, Dove. And she is perhaps less consciously aware of how her great love (the island) ties in with the dangers of nature, as she tends to confer all the danger onto the capaill uisce and reserve her love for the land.

However, Puck starts to understand why Sean loves Corr and to love Corr herself even though her parents were killed by capaill uisce, and even though she's connected to many more people than Sean ever will be. So, what allows someone to fall in love with a capall uisce, a killer of islanders? Does love just come from understanding that there's no malice behind what the capaill do? Is that what allows Puck to come closer to Corr by the end of the novel, despite her parent's deaths? Or does her understanding of Corr come purely from her developing love of Sean? One of the joys of this novel is seeing Sean start to come to care for another person just as much as Corr when he begins to trust and fall in love with Puck, but if Corr killed Puck could Sean still love him just as he loved him after his father's death? I'm glad the novel never asks readers to find that out (please keep the ladies alive) but I still wonder.

Together, Sean and Puck's alternating, first person narratives create a bewitching spell that calls to the reader to fall in love with the island and perhaps even the capaill uisce themselves, as long as they keep their guard up. Sean and Puck's narratives are so effective at pulling readers in because Sean and Puck are themselves under the spell of nature. They are able to communicate the magic of the land even as they remain realistic about the problems and limitations of their island:

'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.'

And they are not the only people who feel love for the difficult island and the vicious horses. George Holly, an outsider, is steadily sucked in by the charms of Thisby over the course of the novel, and Puck's brother, Finn, loves their home.

However, that spell doesn't penetrate the hearts of all the islanders. In their podcast, Renay and Susan talk about Sean being mythologised by the islanders, which I thought was a great point (seriously their podcast is full of great points — go listen). They said the islanders talk about him having 'one foot in the sea and one foot on land' but focus on the part of him in the sea; the part aligned with the capaill uisce. Renay and Susan come to the conclusion that Sean is 'not a capaill uisce' and he can be touched, it's just that the islanders don't try. No one but Mutt Malvern would ever call out Sean Kendrick for his love of the horses. However, it feels clear from the distance that the rest of the island keep from him, and the warnings that people like Peg hand out to Puck and Sean that it is not considered quite right to be so friendly with the sea. It's really interesting to find that perspective on an island that makes its living from the sea (through tourist money and fishing).

It's not uncommon to find sea narratives displaying a healthy wariness of the sea; recognising that it doesn't do to get too friendly with the sea, or classifying the sea as purely a useful tool. Still, in narratives that are about a relationship with the sea it's generally accepted that as long as you're smart it's ok to like the sea, to admire it and even to love it. There's none of that love among the islanders of Thisby (although I don't think Sean is the only one who cares for his capaill uisce — the owner of Penda is a past winner who recovered his horse after losing it in the races and I thought that showed a small hint at another true partnership). This makes sense because there are murdering horses in the ocean around Thisby — I suspect much of the islander's fear comes out of the magical side of the capaill uisce. People are fine with loving dangerous natural phenomenon, but perhaps not so much natural phenomenon caused by magic — perhaps, somehow it seems like people who live by a magical ocean need to put a bit of extra distance between themselves and the coast. I also thought that maybe this explained why Sean doesn't relate to many people on the island, because they treat him with a tinge of the fear they put out towards the capaill uisce, the fear he rejects at the beginning of the novel.

Some of the characters ask 'How can you fall in love with a monster?' in their hearts and find they are filled with frustration which causes them to want to leave the island. To them the unconditional answer — 'How can you not?' — is incomprehensible. Puck's brother Gabe, for example, plans to leave Skarmouth behind and when the two talk about Thisby the same things produce vastly different reactions in them:

"What can't you bear?"

"This island," Gabe says. He breathes a pause between every word he says. "That house you and Finn are in. People talking. The fish — the goddamn fish, I'll smell like them for the rest of my life. The horses. Everything."

For Puck 'Everything he said are things that I love about the island, except maybe the smell of fish…' — Puck loves all the things he hates. Some characters like Gabe and Tommy Falk see only the violence or privations of Thisby. It's a small island, with no concerts or opportunities for its youth, and it's plagued by killer horses — really who can blame them for this attitude?

The novel's willingness to allow for different points of view, and ability to display all of these points of view without endorsing one as an absolute truth that dismisses other people's realities, is part of what makes "The Scorpio Races" feel so well made and truthful to me. There's a delicate balancing act going on within the text as it works to convey all the sides to an idea: being afraid of the capaill uisce but loving a boy called by a deadly water horse; loving an island that others hate; desperately wanting to keep what you love but recognising that you might need to let it go free. That balance makes the novel feel like it understands the complexities of our world, which is so full of contrasting feelings and shades of grey. And by presenting all kinds of different, valid sides of an idea, and reminding the reader how a person can feel contradictory things all at once, the novel shows readers how much caution and care may be needed when picking through real life interactions with those around you. The novel often pulls out the substance of inner thoughts which people may ordinarily process in a flash in real life and puts them up in a slower, more broken down version so the reader can see thought processes. Maybe this enables readers to recognise the complexity of others internal thoughts — at least I know that's what I took away from it, especially when Puck was thinking around things:

There is a little narrowing to his eyes at the end of it that makes me understand that this is a test. Whether or not I'm brave enough to go into the stall with Corr after yesterday morning, after I've had time to think about what happened. The thought of it makes my pulse trip. The question is not if I trust Corr. The question is if I trust Sean.

By breaking out complex thoughts, and showing all different sides of them over the course of the novel, "The Scorpio Races" encourages readers to remember what Renay is always trying to press home — it's important to imagine that other people are as complex as you are.

The readers' ability to imagine human complexity is often tested when it comes to characters like Gabe. The novel initially cloaks his motivations from Puck and the reader — it makes Gabe seem like a pretty terrible person just by keeping both the reader and his sister in the dark. Then, as the novel progresses the reader and Puck begin to see why Gabe is acting like he is; they begin to see his pain and to understand the way the island is crushing him. By the end of the novel he's still done some things that are hurtful and damaging (not telling his sister the house was being repossessed is just one), which aren't explained away and which require forgiveness. However, the reader and Puck are encouraged to see Gabe's point of view and to start to mend their relationship with him. And I think that for the reader it might be easier to do this because the rest of the novel has been subtly emphasising the importance of seeing things through other people's eyes by showing multiple different ways of thinking — at least, that's partly what made it easier for me to let go of my frustration and anger with Gabe by the end of the novel.

There's another reason I felt more kindly towards Gabe by the end of the novel — watch out, I have a Random Theory to propose. Am I reading too much into Gabe's actions if I say I think part of his reason for leaving Thisby is that he's gay? The text never confirms this but after reading "Fury of the Phoenix" and "Graceling" I'm on the lookout for male characters, who aren't involved in a romance with the opposite sex, whose same sex relationships aren't confirmed with words but are still deliberately present in the book. Cindy Pon confirmed that one of her characters was involved in a gay relationship that was never made explicit in the text. Cashore has never confirmed her two very friendly male characters are together, but I am pretty firmly convinced they're being deliberately written in a romantic relationship.

I know Gabe gives Puck a reason for why he's leaving eventually, and there's a scene where the reader can see exactly what he found lacking in their house after their parents died which makes it clear that these reasons are genuine. I'm just saying that there might be other hidden reasons as well. I started getting the vibe that his sexuality might be motivating him to leave when Father Mooneyham tells Puck that Gabe has a problem he's cried over in confession. At the time I read this I didn't realise the book was set in the past2 I just started getting a feeling because Thisby is a small, quite conservative island and my own personal media history makes me alert to gay subtext surrounding troubled boys who seek help from religious leaders. Once I knew the novel was probably set in the 1970s I was pinging on that potential subtext even harder.

There are also repeated references to Gabe's friend Tommy Falk and his 'pretty lips'. I don't want to make too much of that repeated phrase being a potential textual clue to Tommy's sexuality — not all 'pretty' boys are gay obviously. However, I wondered if maybe Stiefvater was using this phrase and other references like 'All of them are men, not a girl between them, unless you count Tommy Falk because his lips are so pretty.' to indicate that Falk is somewhat outside of traditional male sexuality, and to hint that Gabe's friendship with Tommy indicates something about Gabe's own sexual preferences? It's a bit of a tangential leap but perhaps there's something there? His reaction at Falk's funeral seems like that of a best friend, and it's clear that Gabe has created a surrogate home at the Falk's from the scene where Puck visits their house, so perhaps I'm just getting unintended homo-eroticism in their friendship. However, his further conversation with Falk's parents at Tommy's funeral seems so fierce it felt like he was conveying an extremely deep love. That love could still be friendship, and his crying at confession could be about anything, but I thought that it spoke to romantic love. I don't know, maybe I'm reaching, or just reading in subtext to cute phrases like '…his presence makes Gabe cheerful and goofy.' rather than seeing something that's been deliberately written… Opinions? On a related note: How do you think Gabe feels knowing that if his sister hadn't decided to race Tommy would have been safe on the mainland? I just want more Gabe chat really — won't you let me draw you in?

Much like "Hannibal", "The Scorpio Races" is a highly crafted piece, made in such a way that eventually the reader sees it's been deliberately crafted all the way through. Readers can feel that nothing appears by chance and that each image or word choice develops something along the way — whether it's a theme, or a feeling of character connection, or a side story. And again, like "Hannibal", "The Scorpio Races" reveals this element of deliberate craft to the reader subtly and without ever drawing attention to the fact that it is coyly saying 'Hey, that thing you noticed, that was on purpose just so you know.'

"Hannibal", for example never explicitly makes the devastating connection between Lecter saying 'Have you ever lost a pony, Jack?' in episode two and what is revealed in episode six — that Hannibal has always known that Jack lost a pony because he slaughtered that pony. The audience is left to watch that scene in episode six, think back several episodes, make the connection for themselves and draw out the extra horror of Lecter's conversational games all on their own. In a way, it's like all the pieces are left out for the audience but they build this unspoken part of the story themselves; making connections between specific words and images over the series, and drawing their own extra detail from these connections.

*sigh* "Hannibal".

*Ahem*, but this is not another post about "Hannibal"! I just mean to illustrate that I think "The Scorpio Races" feels like it also reveals connections slowly and subtly, although it doesn't employ these tactics to reveal big secrets like "Hannibal" does. Instead it makes implicit connections which allow it to avoid info dumps or awkward monologues when developing characters or relationships. For example, rather than having any big speeches about love and compatibility from Sean or Puck, Stiefvater occasionally weaves similar thoughts, or actions into each characters narrative which implies their compatibility. George Holly references being kissed by a blind woman on page 276 and the reader has to think back many pages to a short reference to Anne Dory, and then there's a whole story about Anne to be teased out of a few more quick remarks. Stiefvater talks about using indirect characterisation on her blog and I thought this technique was used especially well in "The Scorpio Races". Teasing out details meant I had to work while I read and I came away satisfied from engaging deeply. The possibility of finding more detail that I've missed makes me excited to go back to the book for a second read.

Probably the only thing I'm not looking forward to about a second read is coming upon the villain of the book again. Mutt Malvern, the illegitimate son of local power Benjamin Malvern, is a monster who ironically talks as if loving a monster, a capall uisce like Corr, is a contemptible weakness; as if emotionlessly mastering the monster is the only way to prove yourself worthy. This approach to the capaill uisce and the island, which it is implied he will also attempt to master through scorn and violence, precludes understanding and belonging no matter how long he remains on Thisby.

Mutt may be Thisby bred but he couldn't be more of an outsider. He is also a boy with daddy issues. I know I have a special fondness for these types of characters so I may be biased but doesn't that sound like an intriguing character? Yet, I found it incredibly hard to connect with Mutt at all because he's such a carbon copy villain and a blank personality. In their podcast, Renay and Susan talked about Mutt Malvern's 'flatness'; how he doesn't seem to have a life apart from being Sean's antagonist, or have any feelings besides hatred. I agree and I thought that was really sad, especially considering how much potential for indirect characterisation his background afforded.

As his dad is key to the kind of person Mutt becomes, let's talk about parents and family for a moment. The father-son relationship is a huge part of this novel and nearly entirely revolves around Sean. While Puck's relationship with her mother is important too, with her mother being dead it brings a different layer to the story than Sean's various relationships with live adult men. The basic dynamic between the Malverns and Sean reminded me very much of Mayor Prentiss, Davey Prentiss and Todd in "The Ask and the Answer". Although the way those relationships play out are very different, the configuration is similar — there's the unwanted son, the unwilling surrogate son and the controlling father/aspirant father figure. Enter Benjamin Malvern, manipulator extraordinaire.

Although Benjamin Malvern is an awful man (controlling, deliberately cruel and full of so much business-like practicality that he's cut off from any enjoyment of the horses he owns) he initially appears to have another side to him. Every year he instructs Sean to put Mutt on a safe horse in the races and so readers assume he must be worried about his son. I actually thought, as Mutt got more evil and out of control as the novel progressed, that Benjamin Malvern's concern was intended to mirror Sean's 'How can you love a monster?' storyline which would have been so interesting. However, I think by the end of the book I'd decided his concern was about something very different than love; it's about bloodlines and breeding. Mutt is Malvern's only son and he's illegitimate at that; I think Benjamin keeps him close and safe because he's looking for an heir — a blood heir to the dynasty he's spent so long building up. To me, he just feels like the kind of character who wants to assert the control of his line from beyond the grave. He talks about how he can't 'compare Matthew's path' with his own 'to see where he might be going.' which I think was the first hint that I had that his apparent concern is something else entirely. And here's the moment where Benjamin Malvern finally realises the full extent of his disdain for Mutt and the moment when I saw Prentiss' brand of cruelty in him:

"So he's practically a son." Holly says. "The explains the bond. These horses all bear his handprint, don't they? Seems to me he's the logical heir to the Malvern yard, if you were asking me."

Benjamin Malvern had been looking at his son, who was staring back at him, but when Holly finishes, Malvern's eyes sweep over me in my suit and he purses his lips. "In many ways, Mr Holly, I think that is very true." He looks back at Mutt and adds, "In most ways."

That's Mayor Prentiss there, with his desire to make a worthy heir if he can't have one born to him. No one whose care of their son was born out of true love would ever say that so coolly in front of them. Benjamin Malvern may not bodily sacrifice his son in the same way that Mayor Prentiss does, but he signals that he'll willingly throw him over for Sean when he realises that Mutt will never serve him purposes. And he takes no responsibility for Mutt's failure, or his cruelty. Instead, when he sees that his son's cruelty is born of weakness instead of strength like his own, he rejects him.

There's so much in their relationship that could have been used to develop Mutt into something more, especially in light of the way "The Ask and the Answer" used a similar relationship to humanise one of its villains and to show a fuller picture of how abuse and insecurity breeds violence. I'm not saying Mutt should have become Davey Prentiss (they're very different people), or better, or even changed throughout the text. It just might have been nice to see a little more direct acknowledgement of the role Benjamin Malvern almost certainly played in creating the monster Mutt has become.

I'm not sure if I'm asking for too much textual confirmation here, but whenever I go to write something like 'Mutt Malvern's violence stems partly from the insecurity of being a bastard brought in to a profession that he just has to be good at or else he'll be nothing', or 'Mutt Malvern doesn't move to the mainland because his father is controlling', or 'On Thisby he is set for life by reputation and money, whereas on the mainland he would have to prove himself', or 'His insecurities, fostered by his father's disdain and his status as a bastard, keep him afraid' I look at the textual evidence and have to say 'Maybe…'. That's all there is, just a maybe. There's a thin line of possible justification, but no real evidence, but it feels right to me… And without allowing for these thin lines of possibility Mutt's motivations purely come from his father's clear favouritism of Sean… Maybe that's all there is to it, but… I kind of feel like that's not enough. So, your father clearly prefers his groom to you — is that really enough to inspire such a peak of rage? There surely has to be a background of insecurity for that to build on, or else you could just shrug it off right? Or maybe I just like my villainous, discarded sons a little insecure.

As Mutt is so focused on Sean, and has so little else to his character (we know he hangs around with a gang of island boys and they inexpertly catch capaill uisce but otherwise what does he do all day?) I began to view him as someone who had become inhuman because of his desire for revenge. And that idea of a villain cut off from their humanity perhaps just isn't as interesting to me as a calculating, reasoning villain like Benjamin Malvern. Perhaps he suffers from being compared to his conniving father even when it comes to villainy and violence — oh, wouldn't Mutt just hate to hear that?

Even though Benjamin Malvern is just awful he and Sean are probably my favourite surrogate family pairing in this novel. Malvern is the worst. I'm glad Sean escapes him. And yet… I kind of wanted them to work something out at the end of the novel. I think it has a bit to do with how Malvern is clearly desperate to keep Sean because he respects his talents with the capaill uisce and with people, a bit to do with how he knows he can't keep Sean without Corr and a bit with how I find Malvern's hidden story fascinating. I'm drawn in because there's so little about it in the text but what there is sounds tantalising.

The reader finds out little snippets about Malvern mostly through Sean or George Holly as the story progresses. He used to be a rider, but Sean doesn't know why he stopped; his son is illegitimate but Sean doesn't know if Mutt's mother still lives on the island; he used to be in love with Anne Dory but we never learn how that ended3 and he drinks the most confounding tea (according to the internet butter and salt in tea comes from Tibet or Pakistan, but may also be similar to drinking buttered rum or a hot toddy — make of that what you will). I want Sean to be free but I also… kind of don't want Malvern to lose the part of Sean he seems to need and want, an heir who has a natural understanding of horses and who Malvern can be easy with, or someone who is strong enough to stand against him.

And that's why I'm glad that Puck gets a job with him at the end. She's all those things, but she's free from Malvern's controls and all the emotional background that Sean has with him. She will work for a salary and go home at the end of the day; none of this indentured servant thing Sean has going on. By the end of the novel she's beaten Malvern fair and square, and negotiated with him successfully. I like to think this will earn her a margin of the respect Sean has already and that can be built on. Puck wins everything in this novel, except the things she can't possibly win back (like her mother, and Gabe's affection for the island). I love that.

Speaking of Puck, when I was reading the book I liked both the main characters equally and found Puck such an interesting character but as you can see I've been easily sucked into writing about the men in this novel. It's difficult. Sean is the reticent riddle in love with a killer horse and that immediately draws me to write about him. So, it's important to note that Puck's the person who drives much of the novel's plot — she's the reason this particular story about the races exists at all. And her story is fantastic — it's part coming of age, part smash the patriarchy, and part family drama which are all things I love. She's the first woman to ride in the races and what's more she decides to race a regular horse against the vicious, speedy capaill uisce. She's determined to save her home and keep her second brother Finn stable. She's pushing back against the force of Malvern's power and absolutely no one on the island, besides Sean, goes out of their way to help her. Sure, they treat her fairly in commercial transactions and they're friendly, but they also largely ignore her family's poverty and leave her to sort herself out when it comes to the races. Much like the island, they could kill her with indifference. The fact that she conquers all by the end of the novel is extraordinary. And, like Sean, her personality, her history, her thoughts and feelings are all written with a subtlety that makes her a character I want to revisit4.

Before I leave Thisby behind, I've got a Big Question to pose: Why does the island hold the Scorpio Races anyway? Most SFF novels will explain why the main situation they've set up makes sense, for example "The Hunger Games" sets out reasons for its own horrific sport. The races are just as violent as the games, although possibly less barbaric (riders choose to ride, whereas the games force participation), but no one ever really talks about why the races continue year after year. The reason for the races in this novel is never set out directly by the islanders, I suppose because they know and innately understand all the multitudes that go into the why of it. A practical drive for tourism plays a part but because no one, definite reason is pushed (probably because there are several) the reader is free to wonder about other reasons; to explore how they might feel if killer horses rocked up to their home every year, especially if they didn't want to leave it. And they can examine some of the character's actions within that frame of reference.

Would you, reader, seek to regain control in a world where horses from the sea can destroy you? Is that why Benjamin Malvern brings water horses to his yard? Is that part of why he's so controlling? Is that why so many men try to wrest horse from the sea each year? Or would you think of honouring these mystical creatures, if one day you found out magic was only real in your home town? Would they feel partly like a gift, no matter how much they took; one that needed renewing every year? Is that why people support the races and is their continuation part of the love Sean talks about in the quote I used at the start of this post? Or are the races a type of sacrifice from a scared population who accept that 'It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die'? Is it just the mix of fear and challenge and tradition and money that keeps the sport going? Is the reason behind racing perhaps different for everyone? Is the answer to all these question 'Yes'?

And that's the end of another review full of questions. I'll try to be more definite next time! Hopefully even if I haven't given you all the answers I have made you think about picking up this crafted YA tale of killer horses and mixed up families. If not, perhaps the Lady Business+ podcast will?


1 Of course I don't want that feeling all the time from every book I read. It would make me a rather tedious, intense person if I was always looking for this one feeling. Sometimes I want a book to just be silly, or to focus mostly on a good plot to follow down dark alleys, or allow me to just obsess about UST. Never the less, I'm addicted to that feeling I tried to describe above. I wouldn't read half as many books if I wasn't searching for it.

2 In Renay and Susan's podcast they show that the book is a historical story, possible set in the 1970s , which was a great catch - I would never have spotted that.

3 I think she's Mutt's mother, which rather implies that she left Benjamin Malvern and let him keep the child, perhaps to free herself of him.

4 Anyone who wants more thoughts vaguely related to Puck can check out the disordered thoughts on my Tumblr.

Other Reviews

Lady Business+ - Episode #2: The Scorpio Races
The Booksmugglers
Narratively Speaking
My Friend Amy

Supplemental Material

The Scorpio Races animated trailer
"Writing the Book I Always Meant to"
The Scorpio Races - Audio excerpts and music
The Scorpio Races playlist
November cakes recipie

Date: 2013-12-05 05:27 am (UTC)
goodgriefcharlie: shen wei and zhao yunlan at the side of the road (Default)
From: [personal profile] goodgriefcharlie
I love reading your thoughts on this book! (Well, and in general too, but there's always a special delight in reading how somebody else liked a book you also liked.) And thank you for linking to the podcast -- will have to go have a listen when I get the chance!

(Re: Cashore has never confirmed her two very friendly male characters are together, but I am pretty firmly convinced they're being deliberately written in a romantic relationship -- I'm not sure if you've read Bitterblue or not, but it actually does touch back on this subject again and gives you a definitive answer, if you're interested.)

Date: 2013-12-08 05:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Part of me really wants to reread this book. I loved it when I read it, earlier this year I think, but it was a library book so it had to go back. But I'm a bit worried a reread won't be as wonderful. Reading reviews like this make me think, yeah I can reread it. It *is* an awesome book :)

Date: 2013-12-11 08:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yay! I think I'll buy myself a nice hardback version for my bday in Feb. The cover is almost enough to justify that :)

I *have* read The Raven Boys, and I'm conflicted. I really enjoy it but I don't LUUURVE it, partly I think because there was such a gap between books 1 and 2. I should have reread, and I think I will before the next book because I got all confused over backstories and plotlines. But I love the Owain ap Glendower aspect and I love Blue so I think a reread will make a big difference.


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Ira is an illustrator and gamer who decided that disagreeing with everyone would be a good way to spend their time on the internet. more? » twitter icon tumblr icon AO3 icon

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