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“I wonder if, when I talk about Dove, people can hear how I love her the way that I can hear his fondness for Corr in his voice.  It’s hard for me to imagine loving a monster, though, no matter how beautiful he is.  I remember what the old man said in the butcher’s, about Sean Kendrick having one foot on land and one foot in the sea.”

  • from The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Once a little girl left a book behind at the grocery store, and I started reading it.  She came back for it about fifteen minutes later, which is a testament to how much she loved it, and I bought the whole series at the used bookstore the next week, which is a testament to how much I did.  I’ve been a big fan of Maggie Stiefvater ever since.  This book is my favorite of hers, a to-die-for combination of horse book and mythology-inspired YA fantasy.  Every time I read it I re-experience the tragedy of not having had it as a fourteen-year-old.

This book has many qualities I generally dislike in modern YA fiction—it’s written in the present tense, narrating-my-own-diary style, and uses paragraph breaks and sentence fragments to add melodrama.

Nevertheless.

The story is drawn from Celtic legends of water horses or kelpies, aquatic monsters who drowned their riders.  The setting is an island.  Every fall bloodthirsty water horses come out of the sea, hungry and savage.  Some of them are caught, and there’s a race on the beach, a blood sport for fame and a purse.  Puck Conolly, the first girl to ever ride in the races, enters her name in a gamble to get her brother to stay on the island.  Her family is falling apart and can barely put food on the table, and winning the race is her chance to retain everything she holds dear.  Sean Kendrick, winner of the last four races and standing favorite to win this one, races every year in the pay of the biggest stable on the island.  Every year he rides Corr, the lightning-fast blood-red water horse who will do anything for him.  Every year he offers to buy Corr, and his employer refuses.  This might be the year winning will get him his heart’s desire, but when he meets Puck, he finds himself wanting her to win instead.

Stiefvater distills the mood and speech cadence of of the island beautifully, setting it in time (circa 1950s) and place (circa Scotland) without ever needing to spell it out.  The story of two people united in loving the harsh, desperate life they’ve always known is a rare story to tell, and Stiefvater tells it with grace and resonance.  She makes the reader love the island as much as the characters do.  Puck’s courage and frankness will win you over as will as Sean’s quiet loyalty.

Read this if you ever loved horses, mythology, or the sea, and definitely if you love all three.  Read it in the fall, by the ocean.