Over the past few years, Virginia author Maggie Stiefvater has quietly zoomed to the top of the young adult/urban fantasy genre with her Wolves of Mercy Falls series (Shiver, Linger, and Forever) and her Books of Faerie novels, Lament and Ballad.
Today, she steps out of seriesville with a standalone novel, The Scorpio Races. Like the series books before it, Races is filled with the haunting imagery and lush, descriptive language for which Stiefvater has become known. But instead of bringing a new telling to an old trope of faeries or werewolves, she brings us to tiny fictional Thisby Island, located somewhere near (probably) Ireland, where once a year the magic of the water horses or seahorses or kelpies, depending on your mythology comes to life in the form of a beachfront race to the death.
The story, rich with complex characters, centers around the upcoming Scorpio Races, and two of the riders. Sean Kendrick, a 19-year-old island boy, has enmeshed his entire life with that of the capall uisce, or water horses, since the death of his father during a race when he was a boy. Sean has won the Scorpio Races four years running and is recognized as the best trainer on the island, but he remains tied to a lowly job as a stable hand and trainer for the wealthy Malverns because he knows that if he leaves, the capall uisce especially the one named Corr, which he loves will be ill-treated. As the story begins he seems frozen in place, wanting to claim his independence and yet unable to do so.
The other rider is Puck aka Kate Connolly another teen orphaned by the water horses, living in abject poverty with her two brothers. She becomes the first female to ever sign up for the Scorpio Races, a desperate ploy she hopes will keep her older brother Gabriel from moving to the mainland and abandoning her and her younger brother in their pitiful circumstances. Her gender becomes an issue with the old-worldish islanders, and its only through Sean’s say-so that she’s allowed to enter.
Puck and Sean have their own coming-of-age stories that intertwine eventually. In fact, the two characters’ stories proceed independently for the first half of the book before they ever actually meet. But this is a moody, atmospheric story that should appeal to readers far beyond the young adult genre fan.
Sean and Puck aside, the star of The Scorpio Races is the deep world Stiefvater has created and the frightening, magnificent capall uisce. The massive horses churn below the water, hungry for meat and blood no oats or hay for them and when they’re caught and trained for the next year’s races, they form fearsome mounts, difficult to control and responding to iron and holly like any good mythological creature born of fairy magic.
The island itself is a character, with its own caste system, from the richest Malverns, who sell horses to buyers from the mainland, to the lowest, like Puck and her brothers, who scratch out a living painting teapots for the tourists who come to the island each year for the races.
In her author’s notes, Stiefvater says she has tried for years to write of the mythical water horses, but repeated attempts failed “the myth was both complicated and plotless,” she writes. The capall uisce are called by different names in different (mostly Celtic) mythologies, and the only common theme seems to be that they’re fairy horses from the sea.
Stiefvater accomplished her decades-long goal of bringing this myth to life with The Scorpio Races and now through the stories of Sean and Puck, readers can get lost in a new telling of an old tale.
Suzanne Johnson is an urban fantasy author whose New Orleans-based series kicks off in April 2012 with Royal Street, from Tor Books. When she isn’t writing or agonizing over SEC football, you can find her wasting time on Twitter.