Review: The Scorpio Races

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”

How’s that for an opening line that punches you in the gut?

To be honest, I’m not sure how I ended up with this book, because I don’t think the back cover does a good job of selling it. See, it mentions a race and the fact that people die in it, and something about water horses.

What it doesn’t mention is that water horses have a taste for human flesh.

I mean, seriously, when you talk about a book, are you like “So it’s about a race and people die in it?” or are you like “It’s about a race–with carnivorous people-eating horses! Seriously, CARNIVOROUS HORSES THAT COME FROM THE SEA, HOW COOL IS THAT!?”

I thought so.

The plot is as follows: Every November the island of Thisby holds the Scorpio Races, a deadly contest in which riders attempt to keep hold of their capaill uisce (pronounced “copple ishka” according to the book) long enough to cross the finish line. The water horses are as deadly as they are beautiful, and no one knows them better than Sean Kendrick, who really only wants a life with his capall uisce stallion Corr by his side. Puck Connolly is different, driven by a desperate need to keep her family together, she enters the Races–the first woman to do so–with the goal of winning it all….if she doesn’t die trying.

The Scorpio Races that leaves me with a bunch of competing emotions. Now, as I sit here just after finishing it, I’m still not sure whether I love it because it’s different or if I hate it because it’s as slow as molasses. Or, to put it another way, the book is as slow as molasses, and although this would usually be one of the most annoying things for me as a reader, I still ended up liking the book overall.

Actually, I think that perhaps I was a bit misleading about the carnivorous horses, because while they are present, the book definitely reads more like the kind of fiction I was forced to read in high school than your typical fantasy book (or your typical YA fantasy book). In fact, I would almost say it’s closer to magical realism except that it really isn’t that realistic. It’s one of those odd books that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre (I would say that it transcends genres, but I’m tired of that phrase). Those of you who have been here awhile know how I feel about the books I was forced to read in high school so you can imagine what it would take for me to admit that I actually enjoyed something that reads just like those books.

I gather that the title was chosen simply because “The Scorpio Races” sounds much more dramatic than the title “Life in Thisby” even though the bulk of the “action” (so to speak) takes place in the weeks leading up to the race. This isn’t The Hunger Games, where you’re thrown into the action fairly early (comparatively) what you do find is a story that focuses mainly on the island and its inhabitants, an island where carnivorous horses come out of the sea on an annual basis.

The book switches back and forth between two first-person P.O.V.s: Sean and Puck. At first, I was finding it difficult to pin Sean down, because he seemed very much to be a man of few words–and then I figured out that that’s exactly what the author wants you to think. I actually found him to be a bit of a dick at first, but I warmed up to him eventually.

Now let’s nudge Sean aside and talk about Puck.

Puck (her real name is Kate) is an orphan living with her two brothers, Finn and Gabriel. She is the first woman ever to enter the Scorpio Races.

I know what you’re thinking: “Another Katniss, right? Let me guess, she’s a spunky tomboy type who hates ‘girly’ things?”

No, and that’s what I found so refreshing about her. She’s not trying to prove anything, she’s not entering the Scorpio Races to spite anyone, she enters because she doesn’t want her brother to run off to the mainland, and if she doesn’t pay up, they’ll lose the house. She’s not particularly “strong” in the way that characters like Katniss are strong, she’s just an ordinary girl who is trying to do what’s best for her family.

Oh, and she does deal with sexism, both subtle and not-so-subtle, as in this quote: “The women are the island, and the island keeps us. That’s important. But the men are what drive the island into the sea bed and keep it from floating out to sea. You can’t have a woman on the beach. It reverses the natural order.” (p. 196)

Does this sound at all familiar?

So yeah, Puck has to deal with this up until pretty much the end of the book. What I also found interesting during that particular scene was how Puck reminisces about how her mother taught her how to ride, and draws strength from that to call out the men on their BS (she does have some help from Sean).

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the more Pagan-y aspects of this novel, not just the lore around the care of the capaill uisce (namely, the use of iron, bells, magic circles, and tying their manes in knots a specific number of times). There is one particular part of the novel that is strongly reminiscent of The Wicker Man, complete with the suggestion that human sacrifice was once a part of the pre-race festivities and the presence of a mare goddess, and one wonders if, in Thisby’s past, the present day Scorpio Races are a vestige of a ritual in Her honour.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking things. Still, there is definitely conflict between “Old Thisby” beliefs and Christianity, particularly Catholicism. Puck is Catholic, and Sean seems to be a bit more spiritual, just shy of Pagan himself. There are other themes that I could discuss: poverty, despair and isolation that comes from living on an island, but then I just wouldn’t stop talking.

In case I’ve gotten some of you all excited because I referenced The Wicker Man up there, let me just burst your bubble by saying that all of the good bits are sandwiched in between long stretches of Puck being poor and Sean’s troubles with his wealthy employer’s son, respectively. There are a handful of interesting side characters: George Holly is an American (and the text constantly points this out) who has come to buy horses and is basically there to be sympathetic to Sean and be a total player (who has a bit of a thing going on with a blind woman, which I thought was interesting since people with disabilities are often thought to be incapable of expressing sexual desire) but the reader is so focused on Puck and Sean that there isn’t really space for them to develop.

Also, there is a romance, it is not a mushy-gushy romance and there is NO LOVE TRIANGLE, it’s just kind of there. Moving on.

Ultimately, I would say that this book’s biggest flaw is that it’s way too slow. I feel like the author could have cut out a large chunk of the novel and it would have still been great (especially since the chapters are so short). As it is, it has some very interesting ideas and it does manage to pull from several genres to do something different, but the slowness is, I think, what really stops it from being truly awesome and just being, well, different. Then again, as I said, I have this thing about there being too much literature in my genre fiction, I do not like it.

I think my overall point is that if you go into this expecting a “typical” YA fantasy novel, you will be very disappointed. I would say it’s definitely worth a look, if only because it’s a nice change from the vampires-and-faeries fare that’s popular in YA (even though the water horses are faerie creatures, they aren’t really the focus of the book). Oh, and it is a stand-alone novel, which is pretty special.

Also, the paperback edition has a recipe for November Cakes. They are buttery honey-glazed cakes, and they are buttery. Did I mention they’re buttery?

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