Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

I am a big Stiefvater fan, having read The Wolves of Mercy Falls series and Books of Faerie (Lament and Ballad – still waiting for that third book, Maggie!) years ago. The Scorpio Races had been on my list for so long, but to be brutally honest I wasn’t sure about the premise. Flesh-eating water horses? A standalone?? No sequels???

How wrong I was. This novel is perfection! Yes, I am gutted that there won’t be a second or third instalment, but the story tied up so neatly at the end that I can’t even complain.

TL;DR Every November flesh-eating water horses crawl out of the sea onto the island of Thisby, and riders race them on the beach to win money. The boy who wins every year wants to buy his horse off the stables he works for. A girl who’s parents were both killed by the horses needs to win enough money to save the house she and her brothers live in. Throw in magic, rituals, an island with its own personality and a supporting cast of vividly drawn characters, and you’ve got The Scorpio Races.

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5 stars

This book has one of the best opening lines in all of literature (according to me):

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”

If that doesn’t suck you into the story and make you want to read it, nothing will. But I’ll go on anyway…

Stiefvater (pronounced steve-otter, the things you learn listening to audiobooks) based the book on the myth of the Capaill Uisce (pronounced ca-pull ish-ka – again, audiobooks), which is a legendary Celtic water horse that lives in the sea and eats human flesh.

At the end of the audiobook, Maggie read her Author’s Notes, and explained some of the inspiration for the story. She got the idea to write about water horses when she was younger, but she was never happy with the story she created or how the myth fit into it. In the end, she realised she could pick and choose which bits of the myth she wanted and which bits to discard. So, her version of the Capaill is different to every other.

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Back to the story, then. The action takes place on an island just off the mainland called Thisby. We’re never told the name of the mainland, but the audiobook is narrated by two Brits, so I like to imagine it’s England, and Thisby is maybe the Isle of Wight? The aesthetics of the island fit for me, and the Isle of Wight is a major sailing mecca, so the idea of Thisby as a big racing community (albeit, on horses instead of yachts) makes sense to me.

The island is almost a character within itself, the residents regularly refer to Thisby as though it is a living thing rather than a piece of land. Especially, when the riders each had to make a blood sacrifice to mark their participation in the races, I felt that the island was more than just the place where the characters lived, it had a power over them.

“Tell me what to wish for. Tell me what to ask the sea for.”
“To be happy. Happiness.”
“I don’t think such a thing is had on Thisby. And if it is, I don’t know how you would keep it.”

One of the major themes in the book is the choice between staying on Thisby and leaving for the mainland – this is the root of one of the main conflicts of the story. For many, the island has a grip on them that they don’t understand, for others, the island is oppressive and they need to get away.

The mystical elements in the book were really interesting – the horses themselves and the magic they seemed to possess, convincing humans to walk into the sea and be dragged under or eaten. The luring power of the sea to both the horses and the men – Sean is constantly referred to as having one foot on the land and one foot in the sea. The festival where the woman in the horse head mask gave Sean a seashell to wish upon. There were lots of references to superstitions, rituals and beliefs held by the people of Thisby.

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My favourite thing about the book, though, was the characters. Sean is a stoic, reserved nineteen-year-old, whose father was a rider before him, and has won the Scorpio Races four times in the last six years. He has a way with the horses, both normal and Capaill Uisce, and his Uisce mount, Corr, is the fastest and most loyal horse on the island. Kate, or Puck as everyone calls her, is a strong-willed, resilient girl, living with her two brothers since the death of both of their parents at the hands of the Capaill Uisce. She decides to take part in the Scorpio Races, despite her brothers’ protests, in order to win enough money to make sure they don’t lose the house they grew up in.

Both Sean and Puck had such strong motivations and reasons for winning that I found it impossible to decide who I was rooting for to win.

I loved the incredibly slow-burning romance between them, it was far more believable than many YA romances, especially with two such independent, stubborn and hard-headed characters. They were a perfect fit!

“I think every now and then about Sean’s thumb pressed against my wrist and daydream about him touching me again. But mostly I think about the way he looks at me – with respect – and I think that’s probably worth more than anything.”

I gave The Scorpio Races 5 stars, it’s my new favourite by Maggie Stiefvater, but I have heard nothing but good things about The Raven Cycle, which is next on my list now!

The one question I have left over is whether the book has any further links to A Midsummer Night’s Dream than the names of Thisby and Puck? I Googled it, but haven’t found a definitive answer. I’m just curious because the names of some of my characters (Auberon, Xander and Baz Demitree) are inspired by the play too (Oberon, Lysander and Demetrius).

If you read and enjoyed any of Stiefvater’s other books and haven’t picked this one up yet, do it now! It’s the best audiobook I have listened to in months, if not ever. The performances were excellent, with Steve West reading for Sean and Fiona Hardingham for Puck.

Have you read The Scorpio Races? Did you love it? Tell me in the comments, I must know! And, how perfect is this image? She reminds me so much of Puck 🙂

Lyndsey

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I am a member of the Book Depository affiliate program, so if you click through and buy any of the books mentioned in this blog I might make a little commission, but I am not paid to review books and all reviews are my own opinions!

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Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

I just finished listening to the audiobook of The Muse by Jessie Burton, and thought I’d do a little (read: long) review. Read on, my friends…

TL;DR it’s an interesting culture clash between a Trinidadian girl in Sixties London and an English girl in Thirties rural Spain. Key themes include art, war, love and death.

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3.5 stars

I bought The Muse in the Audible sale after Christmas. It was 99p and had good reviews on Goodreads, so I thought I’d give it a chance. I’d never read any Jessie Burton previously, but I’d heard a lot of buzz around The Miniaturist and The Muse.

The Muse is a Sunday Times Number One Bestseller, and The Miniaturist is a million-copy selling bestseller too, so I knew I was in good hands.

Split between two POVs and two very different settings, the novel focuses on Odelle, a woman in her mid-twenties from Trinidad who has been living in London for the past five years, working in a shoe shop and sharing a flat with her best friend Cynthia. Cynth is now getting married and moving in with her new husband, leaving Odelle alone.

Odelle dreams of being a writer, so when she is invited for a week’s trial as a typist at the Skelton art gallery she jumps at the chance. There she meets the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, co-director of the gallery and a woman with many secrets. She immediately takes Odelle under her wing, encouraging her writing aspirations and taking her into her confidence.

“I thought I deserved them, the sort of people you found only in novels. Quick.”

Odelle meets a boy at Cynth’s wedding whose mother has recently passed away leaving him a painting. This painting leads us into the second part of the story – Arazuelo, a small rural village in Spain, not far from Malaga, on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War.

Harold Schloss, an Austrian art dealer, Sarah, his beautiful English wife who suffers from depression, and Olive, their artistic and naive daughter, are renting a finca on the outskirts of the village. On their arrival, the mysterious Isaac and Teresa Robles turn up, ostensibly to work at the finca as groundskeeper and maid. Isaac is also an aspiring artist, and an active Republican.

“A Depressive?’
‘Smiles in ballrooms, weeps in bedrooms. Ill in her head.’ Olive tapped her temple. ‘And here.’ She touched her heart.”

Nineteen-year-old Olive has been accepted to a prestigious art school in London, unbeknown to her parents, who don’t seem to recognise her talent or worth.

She instantly falls for the exotic and distant Isaac, using him as inspiration to paint some of her best works (I believe he is the eponymous muse). When Sarah commissions Isaac to paint a portrait of her as a gift for Harold, Olive insists on being in the painting too, jumping at the chance to spend more time with Isaac.

I won’t say any more about the plot, for fear of completely spoiling you! Suffice it to say, the origins of the painting and how the events of 1936 effect the story in 1967 are revealed to devastating effect.

There is a strong theme of foreignness that permeates the whole book – Odelle is constantly seen as foreign by strangers who comment on her ‘good English’ because of her accent and the colour of her skin. Harold, Olive’s father, left Austria because of the First World War, and the Schlosses emigrate to Spain in search of a more peaceful, relaxing way of life as a balm for Sarah’s mental health issues. Having listened to the audiobook on Audible, the various accents and voices used by Cathy Tyson really brought the book to life, possibly emphasising the different languages and cultures, especially when Odelle and Cynthia speak to each other in their distinctive Caribbean patois.

The book also has strong feminist undertones. It’s clear that Olive is expected to marry like her peers back in England, and that being an artist is not considered a suitable life for a girl. In fact, Harold all but says out loud that women are not as talented or creative as men. Olive is defiant, but in a quiet, subtle way. She doesn’t want to leave her family, so she ignores the letter from Slade School of Fine Art, following her passion in secret by painting in her bedroom when everyone is asleep. Her works are considered far superior to Isaac’s, and she is humble and modest, uninterested in money or fame.

“As far as Olive saw it, this connection of masculinity with creativity had been conjured from the air and been enforced, legitimised and monetised by enough people for whom such a state of affairs was convenient … ”

Sarah and Marjorie are both stylish, modern women, wearing trousers and having their own money and careers in a time when women had less freedoms than today. Odelle is a brave, independent woman – moving across the world to England in search of opportunity.

Other themes that are woven through the book include war – Odelle’s father was in the RAF and died in the Second World War, Harold was displaced from Austria by the First World War, and the devastating events of the Spanish Civil War are seen in fine detail in the book. Love vs. infatuation also features, as well as death.

I enjoyed The Muse, it took a while to get into but once the story got going I was intrigued and wanted to keep listening. There was one particular twist towards the end that had me saying ‘Oh my God!’ out loud.

The backdrop of the civil unrest in Spain in the Thirties, with the hindsight of the war to come, gave the sections set in Arazuelo a real sense of urgency and tension. The mystery of how Marjorie Quick ties into the whole story of the painting kept me hooked until the very end.

I’m giving The Muse 3.5 stars, it’s not my usual genre or taste, but I definitely enjoyed it. I wasn’t as fully absorbed as I’d hoped, but the narrative that Burton has created is detailed and layered, and she has clearly researched her settings thoroughly.

I found the ending slightly frustrating. Whilst most of our questions are answered, not all of them are and Burton even has Odelle address these, expressing her own frustration that she couldn’t get to the bottom of it all. I know this is more realistic than getting an explanation for every little thing, but it left me feeling every so slightly unsatisfied.

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Trigger warnings

I’m never quite sure what can act as a trigger so I’ll stick to the main ones, and if anyone can educate me in the comments it would be appreciated!

There are a few instances of suicide in the book, linked to depression and mental health issues, as well as terminal illness. They are briefly mentioned in passing rather than described in detail. There is also a lengthy scene of torture, more mental than physical, which is quite harrowing.

Take care, readers!

Have you read The Muse? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

Have you read The Miniaturist? Would you recommend it?

Lyndsey

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I am a member of the Book Depository affiliate program, so if you click through and buy any of the books mentioned in this blog I might make a little commission, but I am not paid to review books and all reviews are my own opinions!

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What’s on my TBR?

Allow me to clarify: by ‘to be read’, I mean books and audio books I am in possession of that I am yet to read. I know some book bloggers use the term TBR for books they intend to acquire, books on their Goodreads ‘to read’ list etc. but here, I’m talking about books I could literally pick up and start today, if I were so inclined.

I’m currently reading The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury, and I just finished listening to Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) this morning on my way to work. I really enjoyed it, and it was fun to see JK trying out a different genre.

I started watching the BBC adaptation of The Casual Vacancy years ago when it was on, but I wasn’t hooked and didn’t watch the end. I haven’t read the book – if you have, was it good? Should I read it?

I recently read that the three Cormoran Strike novels are also being adapted by the BBC and will be shown later this year, so I guess I’d better read the other two sharpish! Career of Evil is the third – I didn’t realise this when I downloaded the audio book in Audible’s sale -so I’m a bit behind, but luckily the book is crafted so that you don’t need to have necessarily read the other two first.

Right! Onwards to my TBR…

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Paperbacks

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

I wanted to read this before the film came out so I could watch the film and compare. I didn’t get round to reading it in time, so I didn’t see the film either…  Sound logic, I’m sure. Anyway, I want to read this over the next couple of months so that as soon as the film comes on Sky Movies I can watch it.

Basically, Rachel takes the same train to work everyday and looks out at the same houses and sees the same people going about their lives. One day, one of the people she watches goes missing and Rachel becomes a witness, and then a suspect. It has an unreliable, alcoholic narrator, and the film trailer looked really dark, so I’m pretty excited about it!

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Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

This has been on my wishlist for a while, I bought it when I had a bit of a book binge a couple of months ago and I’m desperate to get to it.

It’s set in an exotic desert nation and has sharpshooters, mythical beasts and magic wielding djinni (genies). What’s not to love?

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The Shadow Queen by C.J. Redwine

A dark Snow White retelling where the princess has magic and the huntsman and the prince are one and the same?  Yes please!

I’ve seen good and bad reviews of this one – some thought it was too dull and boring, others loved it – so I’m going to give it a chance. It sounds right up my street, I love fairy tale retellings and YA fantasy.

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Once Upon a Dream (Twisted Tales) by Liz Braswell

Another fairy tale retelling, this time based on Sleeping Beauty. Liz Braswell was tasked with writing dark and twisted versions of all our favourite Disney fairy tales, for this one she took from the animated Sleeping Beauty as well as the live action Maleficent.

The key difference to the originals is that instead of waking the princess when the prince kisses her, he also falls under the spell, entering the dream world where Aurora has been trapped for years.

I’ve seen mainly bad reviews for these reimaginings, but I’m an open-minded, kind-hearted type of girl, so I’m hoping to enjoy this.

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Who is Tom Ditto? by Danny Wallace

Funny story, I actually ‘acquired’ this book from a cottage I stayed at with my husband and dog. There were a few books in the TV cupboard, I didn’t think they’d miss this, presumably another visitor left it behind… Either way, it wound up coming home with me.

One of the few contemporary novels on this list, this one is written by a British filmmaker, TV presenter and comedian, so I have high hopes for a light-hearted, funny read. I need a little light between the dark sometimes.

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The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid

I received this book in November’s Illumicrate, a bookish subscription box. This was my first Illumicrate and I am so excited for next month’s (it’s a quarterly subscription) because it is actually going to include TWO books, one which hasn’t even been released yet!

November’s also included the cutest socks from Happy Socks, a coffee cup cosy from Sparrow + Wolf, a notepad for my ‘Evil Plans’ by House of Wonderland, an Aidan candle from Meraki Candles – I believe Aidan is a character from Illuminae, but I haven’t read it yet. It smells of sandalwood and bergamot (I do love a nice cup of Earl Grey) and is absolutely delicious. There were also lots of other little bookish bits, like a bookmark and postcards, a signed book plate and cute Christmas tag.

I’m really excited to read The Diabolic, it follows Nemesis, a cyborg designed to protect a galactic Senator’s daughter, Sidonia. Having grown up side by side, they’re practically sisters, as well as cyborg and master, so when Sidonia is summoned by an evil Emperor to be a hostage, Nemesis goes in her place and must impersonate Sidonia. As a humanoid – but not human – cyborg, Nemesis shouldn’t feel, but perhaps she is more human than she seems…

 

Audio books

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The Muse by Jessie Burton

I just started listening to this today on my way home from work. I haven’t read The Miniaturist, but I know it got a lot of hype when it was released. From what I’ve read on Goodreads, The Muse is even better.

Odelle is a Trinidadian woman living in 1960s London, working as a typist at an art gallery when a mysterious lost masterpiece is delivered to the gallery. The painting’s history takes us back to rural Spain in the 1930s, and another ambitious young woman with a fascinating story.

How good does that sound? I’m enjoying it already and I’m only an hour in!

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The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Having read the Wolves of Mercy Falls series, and the Books of Faerie, I’m a pretty big Stiefvater fan. I’ve heard that The Scorpio Races and especially The Raven Cycle are absolutely fantastic, so I had to add them to my wishlist.

I thought I’d start with The Scorpio Races as it’s a standalone.

About teenagers who ride flesh-eating water horses in a deadly competition, how could I not love this book?

So, there you have it. My TBR for the next couple of months. Actually, I’m not that fast a reader, the books will take me several months to read, but the audio books will definitely be done by the end of February, when I fully intend to move onto The Raven Cycle.

What’s on your TBR for the not-too-distant future? I’d love to know!

Lyndsey

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