The Scorpio Races (by Maggie Stiefvater)

30 04 2012

A complete novice to Maggie Stiefvater’s writing, the cat went into The Scorpio Races without too many expectations. A good thing too, because if she’d had them,  she surely would have been disappointed. The Scorpio Races is not about “Scorpios” nor is it about “Races” at all,… so far for the title giving away the whole plot. Not necessarily a bad thing, of course.  The Scorpio Races is actually about Maggie Stiefvater painting a picture of an island, Thisby, in a non-descript period of time. A painting of a place-less place in a time-less time, if you will. Stiefvater definitely does her utmost to make that painting as universal as possible, which is bound to alienate a bunch of readers, amongst which also the cat…

First off, we do get at least an indication of where exactly this island Thisby might be. The protagonists of this little prizewinner are called capaill uisce (“water horses”), which sounds definitely Gaelic enough for the island to be situated near Ireland or Scotland, especially taking the incredibly detailed characterization of the angry wild sea and the roughness of the shoreline into consideration.  Many books are either plot-driven or character-driven and in only a few instances you get the perfect combination of plot & character. The Scorpio Races, however, is really neither. If anything it is setting-driven. The descriptions of the island and the sea surrounding it, out of which these magnificently cruel beasts capaill uisce are born, are what should suck you in from the start. Stiefvater’s prose is vividly atmospheric, the perfect tool to paint an almost impressionist tale of a temperamental island and its long-standing traditions.

In this almost mythical setting, two characters are juxtaposed: Kate ‘Puck’ Connelly and Sean Kendrick. Puck is the first girl to race in the Scorpio Races, which take place every year on the first day of November.  Sean is a 4-time winner of the Races. Both have their own motivations for wanting to race. Puck’s parents were killed by the savage horses, leaving Puck and her two brothers orphaned. Now, Gabe (the oldest brother) wants to leave the island, leaving behind Puck and their youngest brother Finn. Puck wants in on the races to prove to herself and the islanders that she can do it…that and the fact that she needs the prize money to save her house.  Puck being the first girl to enter the races means that all sorts of gender issues are brought to the fore too, of course (an indication that the time period is probably somewhere in the early 20th rather than in the 21st century). Sean, on the other hand, enters because of some sort of ‘oath’ to the owner of his beloved water horse, Corr. What he actually wants is to obtain Corr, the capall uisce, he’s been riding since forever and with which he has an almost transcendental connection. Puck and Sean are two sides of the same coin: one stands for future (Puck) and everything it entails (change), while the other stands for tradition (Sean) and honoring the sea and the land that brought forth the capaill uisce and the islanders.

Despite the fact that almost nothing really happens – large vague-ish brushstrokes, rather than a firm outline, to stay with the painting imagery – it’s a tale that could work (and yes, I’m now totally overlooking the fact that besides Puck, Sean, the island and the capaill uisce none of the other characters have any sort of personality) . However, the one almost insurmountable obstacle for the cat was a linguistic thing: that damned present tense this book was written in! Unlike in Collins’ Hunger Games, the present tense here annoyed the hell out of the cat. Speaking about reading pleasure being spoiled by a linguistic device… It serves a purpose for sure (universality), but it’s also the element that made sure there was almost no distinction in characterization between Puck and Sean. Add to that that both narrations are first-person narrations and you get two voices, which are almost exactly the same (again the universality of it all, the fact they’re two sides of the same coin and all that). Their pasts and motivations are different, despite the fact that there are obvious similarities. Their voices should be complimentary rather than identical. I felt the present tense narration just stood in the way of that.

Like with for instance David Almond, I can see where the attraction lies: atmospheric prose, scenic landscapes, mythical creatures, yadda, yadda, yaddaStiefvater is a pro at creating mood, for sure. But it’s a mood that will not satisfy everyone, especially if you are also looking for a plot advancing at a decent pace (the pace here is sloooooow!), or if you like your books to have more than one interesting character. And also just like with David Almond, the cat really isn’t feeling the love here…



One response

24 09 2013
The Raven Boys (by Maggie Stiefvater) | Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] pays off to go into a book without expectations! Especially when dealing with a paranormal fantasy thingie, which is so not my thing! This just to […]

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