National Velvet while I have fond memories of The Black Stallion. And Maggie Stiefvater comes up with a genius combination in her coming-of-age fantasy that combines the rush of horse racing with her fantastic, yet terrible water horses known as the Capall Uisce (CAPple ISHka).
Set on the fictional island of Thisby The Scorpio Races centers around a race that takes place every November when the waters churn with the deadly Capall Uisce. The fictional sea horses, known for their man-killing hunger, are captured and raced two miles down the beach by riders willing to risk their lives for the money and glory that comes with winning. Sean Kendrick has won the race four times on the red Capall Uisce named Corr, a deadly creature he has formed an unlikely bond with; and his only dream is to win this race and finally have enough money to buy his beloved sea horse.
Kate Connolly, known as Puck to her friends, is an orphan who lives with her two brothers after the Connolly children lose their parents in the wild November waters to the hungry Capall Uisce. Puck loves the island of Thisby but her older brother Gabe finds it stifling and plans to leave for the mainland for a better life. Desperate for money, Puck hatches a plan to enter the Scorpio Races on Dove-- her very ordinary grey pony.
"The Scorpio Races" is a throw-back to the kind of fiction I grew up with. The setting is ambiguous but hearkens to a time before television, when entertainment was found mostly outdoors. Life on Thisby is simple for most, bordering on poverty for many, but the people there enjoy simple pleasures like going to the local pub-- and betting on the yearly race. It's the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows some gossip, and the only strangers are the ones who come in from the mainland for the annual spectacle.
Puck is fierce and ornery, but still subject to the sexism that declares women can't compete in the race. She must also battle the fear of riding on a mount that is scared to death of racing against a horde of animals that will try to kill them both.
Sean is an enigma. He carries a quiet magic of his own that enables him to handle the deadly Capall Uisce in a way that no one else can. At first he resents Puck's presence on the beach, but he comes to respect her nerve and the two of them form a strong bond as they train for the race-- one that could endanger them both.
"The Scorpio Races" has everything I look for in YA fantasy-- or in any story for that matter. Stiefvater is a heck of a storyteller. She takes her time with the characters and doesn't waste any energy on too much drama or angst. There are protagonists and antagonists in this story but rarely do we have to deal with stereotypes. If you're looking for dewy-eyed teenagers and a does he or doesn't he like me kind of story, then "The Scorpio Races" isn't for you. It's for people who love books that don't deal in flashy, gimmicky writing. There's magic, of sorts, with the Capall Uisce but it's subtle and only an addendum to the real heart of the story. I would say that "The Scorpio Races" is really about fighting for simple dreams and finding happiness in being true to yourself: not the most original of themes perhaps but satisfying in that it is done very well.
If I were to nit-pick a little, and that's what I'm here for, I would have to admit that the mythology of the Capall Uisce could have been more developed. All we really know is that they come from the sea, hungry and terrifying, and that they're unique to Thisby. They are clearly based on the old Celtic tales of the Kelpie but there are never any direct references to that mythology. It should also be noted that there is quite a bit of violence, mostly perpetrated by the Capall Uisce, and the blasé attitude those on the island have toward the increasingly high death toll is a bit unrealistic.
But the flaws don't really detract from the pure enjoyment that you get from "The Scorpio Races." The pacing is so great. There's genuine suspense during the final race and real satisfaction in following the journeys of Puck and Sean. My only regret in reading "The Scorpio Races" is that I didn't read it sooner so I could put it on my "Best Of" list for 2011.
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.