The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater – Review

Book Jacket:

It happens at the start 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 chance. 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’m still not entirely sure what to make of this book. It should have had me dead to rights, seeing as I’m a girl who read every horse book I could lay my hands on growing up, plus I also happen to love Celtic mythology and understated romance, and yet…I just couldn’t fully connect with this story, and I can’t quite figure out why.

Set on a small, wind-swept island whose economy depends on the tourist trade, The Scorpio Races, as the name suggests, revolves around the main event each fall, when riders risk life and limb to race the wild, mythical, man-eating horses that emerge from the sea each autumn. Stiefvater certainly paints a lovely picture of stark, rugged beauty and I liked Puck and Sean, the two narrators of this story, for the ways in which they faced down their difficult circumstances and made life-altering decisions about their futures – and yet something about this narrative felt remote to me, like the story was holding me at arms length. 

I think some of my reserve stems from the fact that I kept waiting for this story to fully deliver on its premise – a boy and his horse/girl and her horse and a death-defying race – and it never quite did.  Look, I’m a horse story girl, and when it comes to a rider and his/her horse story, I want to be able to invest in their bond. I want to see those quiet moments that show me the personality of the horse and how much they mean to their rider, and vice versa. When it came to Alec and his Black Stallion, I utterly believed the relationship and was fully vested in it, and I just didn’t have that sense with this story. Yes, Corr – Sean’s stallion – is Sean’s entire family and everything to Sean, and yet we’re told that, instead of shown it. Aside from a few fleeting moments and a killer ending beat, Sean and Corr’s relationship largely happens off-page, and that frustrated me. Likewise with Puck – Dove, Puck’s island pony, is easily Puck’s best friend and yet we only get glancing moments of interaction between them. Puck can spend the whole morning in the saddle, and still Dove gets lost in the story. And I very much wanted to see and feel those relationships, because they were meant to be the soul of this book, but instead they were mostly implied instead of realized. Weirdly it felt like the horses weren’t big enough characters, even though the story was entirely about them. I guess I just wanted more of a horse story.

Likewise when it came to the race, that dangerous, death defying race, it never quite delivered fully on its promise. Honestly the build up to the big event felt a bit flat to me, and the race itself was far too fleeting. I liked Puck’s struggle against the many barriers between her and participating in the race, but the narrative kept wandering away from that tension, defusing it. Puck and Sean are never really set against each other, as I’d hoped they would be – instead they team up without a hitch, without any conflict at all, really. And while I massively, massively appreciated the understated nature of their budding romance, honestly I wish it could have been spiked by their impending competition and possible death a bit more. As for the race itself, it was over far too quickly – and the ending was rather convenient, I thought.

As for the mythological elements, I was downright fascinated by the drips and dabs of folklore Stiefvater paints into this book, but I found myself wishing for more. I wanted very much to learn more about the island and its history, about the mare goddess, and about the strange ways of the sea horses, but all this book gives us are brief glimpses – far too brief, for my taste.

So while the family dynamics and romance were lovely, as were the very real struggles of people trying to make ends meet, all in all this book never quite coalesced, for me. The plot wandered and sidetracked, and honestly I saw most plot points coming from a mile away, particularly with Sean’s antagonist.

And yes, I fully realize just how very subjective my reactions to this story are – is it just that I’ve read too many excellent horse stories, too many excellent race stories? Is it that I’ve watched too much BBC television, such that I’m no longer bowled over by rugged, wind-swept, UK style settings? Or was I just not in the right mindset for family drama when I sat down to read what I thought was a horse book? Honestly I have no idea.

What I do know is that The Scorpio Races is a story about family, growing up, and first love, far more than it is a book about who wins the race. And while I didn’t dislike this book, I didn’t fall in love with it either. Make of that what you will.

Byrt Grade: I haven’t the foggiest.

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Publishers Weekly (starred review) says:

Stiefvater’s narration is as much about atmospherics as it is about event, and the water horses are the environment in which Sean and Puck move, allies and rivals to the end. It’s not a feel-good story—dread, loss, and hard choices are the islanders’ lot. As a study of courage and loyalty tested, however, it is an utterly compelling read.

Nice Girls Read Books says:

The world of Thisby was quite well-constructed, as always in Maggie’s books… That being said, most of The Scorpio Races plot was lackluster. I felt like nothing was happening throughout most of the novel, and I found it VERY hard to get into.

Angieville says:

It’s such a beautiful story. Ponderous, yet filled with bright dots of humor here and there, it moves, strums, and throbs through you with a feeling of ancient inevitability. The Scorpio Races feels like a throwback to the fantasy novels I read as a girl, which still seem, somehow, so much realer than everything else.