What I’m Reading: THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater

This book slayed me. It cut my heart out of my chest and left me breathless. What an absolutely beautiful story about love and sacrifice and the things that bind us together. Summary from the inside jacket:

It happens at the star of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them. Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a choice. So she enters the competition – the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

I did not know what to expect from this book. I have not read any of Maggie’s SHIVER series, but the always lovely Sarah Goldberg gushed to me about THE SCORPIO RACES and I knew I wanted to read it. I am so glad I did. I’ve loved a lot of books in my life, but there’s only a select few that have truly floored me and left me saying, “What I wouldn’t give to write like that.” Jandy Nelson’s THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE is one of them. This book is another.

There is no denying that Maggie’s writing is beautiful, but its power lies in something much deeper than the word-smithing alone. It’s the tone, the mood, the atmosphere that seeps off the page and blankets you. There was something so magical about this book and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to put it in words.

The island of Thisby is a rich and realized place. I felt like it was my home by the time I finished reading. The cliffs, the salt on the air, the smell of fish mingled with hay from the horses. Puck’s* home, Sean’s small space at Malvern Yard, the town of Skarmouth. Maggie brings these all to life so effortlessly.

The dual POVs were also well-executed. Both sides of the narration were necessary to understand the stakes for the characters, but I had a soft spot for Sean. I think the book weighed a little more heavily on Puck’s voice (simply in the number of pages that came from her), but I adore how this novel started with Sean and ended with Sean. Truthfully, I think this is his story, with Puck being an integral part of it. For me, this was a book about a boy in love with his horse, a boy who has no room in his heart for anything but, who feels traps and yearns for freedom, but never if it comes without that creature. And along the way he finds he does have room for more in his heart, and better yet, that he needs it. That even when his horse makes him who he is, he is not so full that he must turn everyone away.

I will admit that the pace was a little slow. I’m guessing ~100 pages could easily have been cut from the book to keep the plot moving, but then I wonder if the mood and tone that was so spot on would have been lost. It’s the slow and steady build leading up to the races, the taxed or tenuous exchanges between characters in their day to day lives, that makes this book so powerful. We wouldn’t have the same understanding of Sean and Puck’s relationship – the way they grow together, the reasons for which they rely on the other – had the quiet moments between them been cut or sped up. I’m also not sure the bond between horse and rider would have been as obvious without the quieter details of this book (the mornings training along the sea, the color of a coat, the smell of hay, the pull and tug of the reins).

Example: We know Sean loves Corr, his water horse, from the moment we meet the two of them, but by the end of the book we feel it. We know to lose the horse would be like him losing a piece of himself and that feels so real it is almost as though we, the reader, could lose something alongside him. I want to say so many more things on this point, but I will spoil everything if I do. I will just say that Corr and Sean made my heart break. Puck and her horse, Dove, are lovely as well, but the sacrifice and love and undeniable connection shared between Sean and his steed makes me consider if the saying “man’s best friend” should be extended beyond dogs and into the realm of horses.

I don’t think I can talk coherently about this book any longer – anything else I say is just going to cross into a gushing, fan-girlish mess – so I will just add that this was one of my favorite reads of 2011. Hands down. It is so unlike anything else I’ve read this year, and it made me cry, which is really saying something.** This book had me in tears. Big, shameless, happy-bittersweet-heartbreaking tears. I. Love. This. Book.

I love it so much that I want to give away a copy. If you don’t own this book yet, here’s a fabulous chance to snag it. Use this handy form to enter:

This book was reviewed as a part of Tracey Neithercott’s Fall Book Club, so if you’re stopping by because you clicked through from her site, do let me know: What did you think of THE SCORPIO RACES? Did you swoon as much as I did?

* Does anyone know where the name Puck came from? Or who gave it to her? Maybe I missed it as I raced to devour this tale. Either way, I never really warmed up to the nickname. In my head, she was always Kate Connolly.
** I bawl all the time at movies, but for some reason, it’s harder for a book to bring me to tears. Maybe because I can pause, put the book down for a moment, and gain control of myself.

42 Responses
  1. I know I’ve said this already, but I’m so glad you loved this. ME TOO. I agree with you about the pace, but also with what you said about setting the mood: I don’t know if I would have cared quite so much about Sean and Corr and Puck and — I cannot remember Puck’s pony’s name, which I guess proves your point — without those many pages of quiet mood-setting scenes. I am totally going to enter your giveaway, because I read an ARC of TSR (which has traveled long and far) and would love to own a real copy.

    1. Erin

      And I know I’ve said this before, but thank you so much for recommending this one to me! Seriously. I am so very glad to have read it and have a feeling it will remain on my shelf of favorites for years to come!

  2. Rebecca B

    100% agree that Maggie Stiefvater was a master of atmosphere with THE SCORPIO RACES. Pacing did seem slow, but I think the slowness added to the mood, in some ways. While I was reading, I really felt like I was on “island time” (granted, not in the Caribbean sense).

    1. Erin

      The slow pacing absolutely added to the mood. I’m glad things didn’t get cut down through editing — every moment on that island added to the overall journey!

  3. You don’t need you to enter me in the giveaway because I own it and will never let my copy go! Yes, I agree totally. This is one of my favorites, not only of 2011, but of all time, I believe. I don’t agree with you that pages could be cut. I think Maggie did a great job of building the atmosphere and emotion while still keeping tension. I find a lot of books these days rushed in sticking to action, so that I keep turning pages but end up feeling kind of empty. This book made me feel like I’d been there and it mattered.

    1. Erin

      Oh, I might not have been clear. I wouldn’t cut a page at all! I was just saying that with a different editor/author combo, it may have been easy to start saying “this scene can go,” or “that one’s not really necessary.” But I truthfully loved the slow and steady pace and thought that each moment helped raise stakes in the story and bring the journey full circle!

      This book made me feel like I’d been there and it mattered.
      ^ Yes! This to the max! :)

  4. I’ve heard such great things about this book, and I can believe she did the atmospheric setting justice– from the first line of Shiver you knew you were dealing with an excellent wordsmith. I’d love to get my hands on a copy!

    1. Erin

      I haven’t read SHIVER (or anything else in that series), but I may just have to add it to my TBR list after this gem.

  5. Okay, I was interested in this book before (I’m a sucker for horse stories) but your review and Sarah’s rec have really bumped it up my TBR list. I’d love to win a copy, so thank you for the opportunity! :D

    I actually use my nickname, Krispy, as my online name. I got this one in middle school because one of my friends’ nickname was Chewy (derived from her last name) and she and I have the same first name. So our other friends started calling me Krispy.

    1. Erin

      Oh my gosh, I LOVE the nickname story! Thank you for sharing. And if you are a sucker for horse stories, you absolutely MUST pick this up, winner or not!

  6. My nickname had been used since day one I was born so it’s been much part of my identity ever since. I’m actually known more under my nickname than my birth name. So the name is Peace. (my dad had his reasons for choosing it).
    It would be great to win this book I’ve been coveting it for a while now. Thanks for the great review as well.

    1. Erin

      Isn’t it funny how some nicknames can become larger than life, almost outweighing a birth name? Puck (Kate) from this story is certainly in that camp!


    I’ve wanted to read this one ever since I figured out there were horses involved, and from your description, the equestrian part is a big role, and now I’m even more excited to read this. However, pacing can be a big issue for me. We’ll see! :)

    And I’ll tweet this contest for you since it’s so short (though I’m not entered, of course).

    1. Erin

      If you love horse stories, you MUST read this one, Yahong. The pacing isn’t bad or anything, it is just slow and steady. But every moment spent on the island is one that helps you become rooted there yourself, and better understand the people and characters, their unique situations and everything that’s at stake. It is definitely worth trying out. I can’t say enough good things about this book!

  8. I agree with everything you said here. I don’t want to write any spoilers in this comment, but that ending, the emotions Sean felt for Corr, just killed me. That very last act Corr does had me crying, too. It was just such a perfect ending. And I agree that this was Sean’s story, though I did like Puck’s spunk.

    I don’t think the pacing was off. Yes, it was a bit slow, but I don’t think she would have set the same mood if everything happened faster. Because you’re right: We knew Sean loved Corr in the beginning but by the end we feel it. It’s the quiet moments he spends with the horse–alone in the stables, on the beach, training–that really did it for me. And as much as I liked Puck and thought her relationship to Dove was sweet, Sean’s was heartbreaking and wonderful and so perfect.

    Great review, as always. :)

    1. Erin

      YES. That ending. Oh my gosh. All I can do is gush and blab when I try to talk about it.

      I don’t think the pacing was off either, just slow. But I liked it that way. I’m glad it didn’t get hacked down, bc in the hands of a different editor/author combo, that may have easily happened (that’s what I was trying to get at before).

      And I agree with you, Puck’s spunk was fantastic. I remember chuckling at some of the exact same lines from her that you pulled into your review! (We seemed to think very alike on this one. Our reviews are near mirrors of each other!) :)

  9. I agree that the tone of this book is what made it so amazing. The words don’t just describe the scene, they elisit an emotional response. It’s not super action packed, but it’s still really powerful. Maggie is definately one of those writers that make wish I could write like her.

    1. Erin

      Yes. The tone, the mood, the atmosphere. It was amazingly rich. As soon as I closed the book, I wanted to read it all over again!

  10. While I enjoyed The Scorpio Races, I didn’t swoon. I watched my roommate swoon over it, shortly before she handed the book over to me, so I think I am in the minority. Actually, I am not sure the last time I swooned over a book! Grad school has officially eaten my soul.

    I am Jessica, by the way, visiting via Tracey’s book club. Nice to meet you, and this blog you have here is super gorgeous. I can swoon over that.

    1. Erin

      Grad school seems to do that to people, huh? How cruel!

      So nice to meet you too, Jess! *waves* I love how Tracey’s book club has got me not only reading more great books, but meeting more fun writers/readers along the way! (And thanks for the comments on the blog! I so appreciate your swooning) ;)

  11. I’m not sure if Puck’s name was explained in detail, but I think it must have something to do with her “plucky” nature and I relate it to Shakespeare’s Puck from “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” But then again, that’s just me. :)

    Great review. You touched on many of the aspects that made me love it as well.

    1. Erin

      Interesting thoughts on Puck’s name! Thank you for sharing. Glad to hear you loved this one as well. It really was a magical and rare beauty!

  12. I didn’t read this review because I didn’t want to see any spoilers. Not sure if you posted any or not, but I want to be safe!

    I started reading this book when it came my way on an ARC tour, but I had to put it down because the violence against the horses really bothered me. Then I heard there was a violent scene with a dog coming up and I didn’t think I could handle it, so I sent it along on the tour without finishing it. Now I am hearing so many fabulous things about it and I want to give it another try! I’m really sensitive to animal violence, but I think I can skim through those parts if the rest of the book is so awesome!

    So, I entered to win. :-)

    1. Erin

      I actually didn’t spoil anything in this review (hooray!) but I understand wanting to be certain. There is definitely a bit of cruelty towards some animals, but both MCs are very sympathetic toward theirs. I know what dog scene you are referring to, and it is over quickly, if that helps.

      Either way, I would try to stomach it again, if you are feeling up to it. There is so much beauty in this book! (And like you said, you can skim over the stuff that unsettles you a bit)

  13. This is a gorgeous review, Erin, and it perfectly captures my feelings regarding SCORPIO. Such a beautiful book, and you’re right: at its heart, it’s a story of a boy and his horse. Who would’ve thought I’d be so smitten with such a tale?! As far as the slow pace, I say: Who cares! I’d rather a slow pace that allows for mood, character development, and emerging relationships than a page-turner that’s lacking elsewhere.

    1. Erin

      Agree with you on the pace. When I was in the middle of the book I was thinking, “I like this, but it’s kind of slow and might be dragging a little.” By the end, I was all “NOPE. It’s perfect. It was all needed. I luuurve it!” Ha. What an absolute gem of a book!

    1. Erin

      Family nicknames totally count! (This book was my introduction to Maggie’s writing, and what a treat! Win or not, I hope you pick it up! :))

  14. I loved Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver trilogy and can’t wait to get my hands on more of her writing! I have no nickname and never did. I always wanted one though, and tried to give myself one during my teenage years, but as lame as that was, it didn’t stick. They’ve got to come from others! Christy

  15. It’s kind of hard making a nickname out of April but my friends tried calling me Ape for a while; it didn’t really catch on :P Sometimes when people ask me to come up with a nickname for myself I just use Lirpa, which is April backwards :P

    1. I never called you Ape! I called you Fish-Oil though, for a while. Mostly beacuse of the Flavor 5, you know that. Now I call you my Ron Weasley, or just Ron, because like Ron you’re my best friend and shall be there for me always. I doubt you’ll ever read this, but I just wanted to let you know.

    2. Erin

      “erin” is the same way — hard to shorten into a nickname, so I totally understand. Love the self-given backwards name though! So clever :)

  16. First, I have to thank you so much for the giveaway!! I read Scorpio Races a couple weeks ago thanks to my library and now I’m dying to have a copy of it!! If I weren’t a jobless student I would have it in my hands right now! Or if I were heartless I would have stole it from the library :P

    Um, nickname wise I have two. The first is Kari, which is what my whole family and anyone who can’t remember my name calls me.

    The second is Seraphina or Sera for short. Or Kick! So I have three friends at school and we used to call ourselves the Abandoned because whenever we tried to make a group activity with our friends, it would always end up just being the 3 of us. So we decided we’d make ourselves a band, though we don’t sing or play any instruments. That’s were our clever group name comes from aBANDoned. So we each came up with stage names for the others and I became Seraphina or Sera. Whenever we go out, we call ourselves by our band names.

    Recently, one of trio, Sussie (who is the only who actually plays an instrument) went to audition for a youth orchestra so we told her she had to Kick Butt! Then we thought we’d change our band name to be Kick Butt Cubed! So kick butt three times. We’re making t-shirts and I am Kick. So they call me Kick sometimes too.

    1. Erin

      So many fun nickname stories! Thank you for sharing. (And win or not, you should try to get your hands on this book. I thought it was simply fabulous!)

  17. Michelle Sinclair

    Sounds swoonworthy to be sure! The incredible bond between humans and animals often makes for such a powerful tale…

  18. I found my way here through YA Highway and must say, the synopsis of Taken has me very excited. :)

    I just had to jump on the opportunity to win a book that I’ve heard only spectacular things about, so I hope you’ll excuse me for this being my first comment here!

    Most everyone who’s close to me just calls me Lys, but a more fun nickname I’ve had all my life is Lizard. I’m not sure why, but my uncle started calling me that when I was very little. I also have a cousin named Ryan who he nicknamed Rhino. Ryan and I have always been very close. The inseparable Lizard and Rhino. ;)

    1. Erin

      Alyssa, no worries about this being your first visit/comment. Thank you so much for stopping by! (and for your kind words re: TAKEN!)

      Love the animal nicknames! Lys makes sense too, of course, but it’s always the more quirky ones that I find so fascinating.

  19. Karen is not a great name for nicknames, but I’ve had a few: “KEW” for my initials, “Dub” also shortened from the initials KW, and “Belly” cuz someone thought my name was Kelly.

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