I just finished reading The Scorpio Races, and I’m still slightly stunned over the whole thing. Stunned in a good way, I suppose, and not by the ending, though I liked that very much. Stunned and… a bit befuddled over how to describe this one to you. Did I like it? Eventually, yes. Did I start out by liking it? Not really. For the first half of the book, I couldn’t figure out whether I liked it or hated it, because the story is so… abhorrent at times, and yet, you still want to know the outcome. The characters and the island and the horses, they still draw you in.
For all my love of fairy tales and fantasy, I have no recollection of ever reading any legends of water horses. So, from the start of the book, I had no idea what was going on or what the islanders were dealing with. What were the capaill uisce, and why were they being raced every year? Why were they so vicious, and what kind of places was this?
[Depending on who you believe, the pronunciation of capaill uisce is either “CAP-pall ISH-ka” or “copple OOSH-ka”. The latter is spelled out, early in the book, by a character in the story, and the former is spelled out by the author, in the afterword. Does this mean she couldn’t decide, or what?]
The island of Thisby is full of islanders that either grow up from the ground, and never want to leave, or they can’t wait until they can afford to get to the mainland. And what a place it is, surrounded by the Scorpio Sea, which is home to the dangerous, terrifying water horses (the capaill uisce). Bigger and faster than horses on land, they are predators and a danger to any land creature, if they come ashore hungry. Think of it like sharks being able to come onto land, at certain times of the year.
I found the story to be dreadfully depressing, at first, but I was caught up in the parallel tales of Sean Kendrick and Puck Connolly. He was the returning champion of the Scorpio Races, a man of few words, impossibly wedded to this strange island, and only wanting one thing from his unbending employer… the champion water horse that he rides every year. Puck Connolly is the first woman to ever ride in the Scorpio Races, and she’s breaking all the unspoken rules to do so, but she isn’t doing it to prove anything to the men. She begins with the goal of keeping her brother away from the mainland, for a few days longer, and it becomes something much more.
The capaill uisce are killers, and every chapter brings it home to you… and then makes you want to believe that they’re just as beautiful as Sean Kendrick knows them to be. The author brings you to love the horses that the islanders love, and then cringe when the same animal causes someone’s death. Everyone loves to read about horses, even when they don’t know anything about them in real life, so how do you make them predatory and yet sympathetic? But no matter whether they’re meat-eaters or not, I still almost cried when someone was cruel to a water horse, and a horse that hadn’t harmed anyone.
This is not a horror story (and those who read horror will laugh over my use of the word frightening, but get over it, already), nor is it a tale that takes place in another world. It seems to be somewhere off the coast England, in a sea that no one on Earth has ever heard of, nor will they ever. But it’s real, for all that, and with an American horse buyer in the mix, you know that they could just hop on a ship or plane, to go to California. You wonder where this island is hiding, and pray that you never find it, because I would never be willing to set foot there. And still, your imagination is seized by the wonder of this island, the people that populate it, and the sea creatures that make them who they are.
I would highly recommend this book (I think it’s Young Adult fiction), but not if you’re looking for something happy and full of sunshine. Nor is it constantly depressing. After the halfway point through the story, I felt like the sun was trying to peek through the clouds, kind of like Sean Kendrick’s rare smile. This book is fascinating, terrifying, and wildly beautiful. Just like the Scorpio Sea and the capaill uisce.