Clean rating: PG-13 largely because, hello, it’s dealing with violent, flesh-eating horses. There is death and blood and maybe a limb or two lost, though not described in overly gory detail.
Short summary: Told from two POV characters, Puck (a female) and Sean, The Scorpio Races is the story of a tiny island where, every year, bloodthirsty water horses wash up on the beach and the men of the town ride them in a highly lucrative race (lucrative if you survive and win, of course). Both Puck and Sean have something they are desperate to fight for, they both enter the race, and they find themselves wanting to help each other. People die. Sheep are eaten (by said bloodthirsty water horses). Teapots are painted. Good times are not had by all.
What I liked: Stiefvater (I do wonder how to pronounce that name) built an interesting mythology of these water horses (whose names I also cannot pronounce and can’t even remember how to spell)* who come to the island every year. They feel just like part of the world of Thisby (the island), and I kept imagining what the world (ours) would be like if there really were such a place. It felt very real.
I also enjoyed the plot overall, except that I could not really engage with the characters as much as I would have liked to for the reasons described below. When I pretended that I didn’t find a couple of their specific behaviors completely incomprehensible, I enjoyed the characters and felt for their struggles and wished them success in their goals and needs.
The conclusion was quite satisfying for me, not one of those “everyone gets exactly what they want too easily” conclusions, but one where some sacrifices were made, some middle ground was found, and the people we cared about got what mattered most to them—though not the way they originally planned. A friend complained that the deal made at the end was unbelievable, and I see her point, but it didn’t bother me over much.
What didn’t work for me: I am not an animal person. If you know me, you know this already. I don’t do pets, largely because they require so much time and work and cleanup and such. But also . . .
(And here’s where I take a minor detour to bring us back to the point.) About two days after I read The Scorpio Races, I read Dan Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer. The main character, John Cleaver, is a sociopath (has antisocial personality disorder). This means he has no empathy, no understanding of human emotions; he can read about them and see them and even try to imitate them, but he doesn’t really get them. At one point, John describes it as an entirely different language that he simply doesn’t know. Reading this directly after my inexplicable experience with Scorpio made me say, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel about pets!” I can read about how much people love their pets and how they don’t mind the dog tearing up the sofa, the cat peeing on the bed, etc., but I just don’t get it. I do not have that kind of attachment to any animal, nor am I willing to have it. I think wild animals are beautiful, and I have a healthy respect for them, but I’m quite happy for them to stay out of my house. (Let us just be clear here, though: Don’t worry, I am not a sociopath.)
So, back to Scorpio. If I don’t get liking your dog who eats your slippers, I’m certainly not going to get why Sean cares so much about his water horse that he doesn’t mind the fact that it is a powerful, killing monster. To me, this is not a horse you want to hang around. Period. Sean’s love for his horse is utterly incomprehensible. It is a foreign language. So I could not relate to him on a very fundamental level.
The same goes for Puck, except in her case it’s the island. Again, I can’t get attached to a land the same way she does. If the place I’m living is wholly inhospitable (and spits out monster horses every October), if I cannot find a way to support myself or my family there, and if I have better prospects elsewhere—well, I feel like ninety-nine times of a hundred, I would move to that elsewhere.
In summary: This inability to relate is why I couldn’t give it another star. I just couldn’t get these people, and so the story didn’t work for me on the visceral level where found myself saying, “I do not understand these choices.” On the other hand, I realize that this is a personal reaction that probably wouldn’t be a problem for a large majority of people, so a 4/5 stars would be my rating if I were someone else.
* Her choice of the name is actually based on some water horse legends, so I can’t completely fault her for it, but I confess to preferring fictional names I can pronounce.