I can’t really say I’m all that fond of horses, although I’ve read my share of horses when I was younger, like  Black Beauty and The Summer of the Dancing Horse. I also haven’t had a lot of exposure to equines, other than the requisite carriage rides in Vigan or Old Manila, and long-ago pony rides in the highlands. In fact, of late, the closest I’ve gotten to these four-legged creatures is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, to keep up with my *ahem* brony friends.

I’ve read Maggie Stiefvater‘s werewolf novels Shiver and Linger, and while they did not make a paranormal romance fan out of me, I thought they were among the better-written books in the genre. But when I first saw her latest novel, I honestly did not know what to make of it. Mainly because of the nondescript brown cover — you all know I judge a book by the cover! — and well, you’ve got to admit there is something off-putting about a story featuring flesh-eating water horses! Nevertheless, I decided to give it a chance.

Scorpio Races features an annual sporting event in the island of Thisby. Riders have to race to the finish line on their water horses. The waters are treacherous, the horses wild, and not everyone who enters the race comes out alive.

Kate “Puck” Connolly is a teenage orphan in desperate straits. Her older brother Gabe is headed to the mainland, leaving Puck and younger brother Finn to fend for themselves. The wily Benjamin Malvern holds the deed to their cottage, threatening the Connollys out of their home. In the hopes of keeping her brother from leaving, and winning money to keep their house, Puck does the unthinkable: she becomes the first girl to enter the Scorpio Races, on a regular horse, refusing to ride the creatures responsible for her parents’ deaths.

Meanwhile, Sean Kendrick, four-time champion of the Scorpio Races returns for another year, with a lot more riding on his potential victory. After watching his father die in the races, and years of hard labor for the Malvern Stables, all Sean wants is his freedom, and ownership of his horse, Corr.

The race brings Sean and Puck together, each wary about the other. Sean thinks the race is no place for a girl on a pony, while Puck thinks surly old Sean has no right to tell her what to do. It’s a long way to race day, and Sean and Puck each have demons to face. But bound by their mutual passion for horses, their love for the island, and their quest to win the races, an unexpected friendship blossoms between the two ornery souls. And with all their hopes pinned on the race, Sean and Puck face it together.

It’s surprising, how this novel crept up on me. I brought it along one day to pass the time in traffic when I had a meeting scheduled on the other side of the city, and I meant to read just a few chapters to try it out. The prologue is as discomfiting as I expected the book to be, and I was a bit bewildered, but each chapter drew me in, and before I knew it, I’d devoured the book before the roundtrip was over.

There’s a natural quality to the writing that really drew me in, maybe because it’s been germinating in her head since she was a teen, and I think there’s so much of herself that flows right into The Scorpio Races. Compared to her Mercy Falls books, I think this is her best work yet.

I loved how the characters are so fleshed out in a way that’s not so common in a standalone novel. Usually the series books have multiple volumes to build characterization, and Stiefvater does a mighty fine job in just one.

Puck joins the ranks of my favorite fierce girl characters — as I’m not a big fan of angsty teens,  I was  absolutely delighted at her pluckiness. Puck is so full of life and brimming with youthful exuberance. Impulsive, courageous, headstrong and sassy as you can get, there’s an energy to her that makes for some exhilarating reading; the words just seem to buzz with her vivacious personality. Sean’s a tougher nut to crack, always cool and collected, with a maelstrom of emotions always kept in check, maintaining a quiet dignity. The contrast kept me hooked, and both characters pulled at me in different ways as the storylines converged towards race day. And then there’s also Finn, Puck’s younger brother, who is possibly one of the most amusing characters I’ve ever read on print. The point of view never shifts to him, but he’s a key character in the story, being Puck’s main motivation and gangly pillar of strength, and he weaves into the story a thread of well-appointed humor, also something I find sorely lacking in today’s YA.

There’s definitely a Hunger Games quality to this book — not quite so action-packed (although it can get pretty bloody, too) but just as gripping, and they revolve around similar themes of family, community, courage, survival, and well, yes, finding friendship — and love — in the most unexpected places. I’m telling you, if you loved Hunger Games, you’ll love this book as well — it’ll make you laugh and cry and just feel so… alive.  And if you’re wondering how the love story pans out, well, this ought to tell you there are some pretty good scenes to look forward to:

I will not be your weakness,
Sean Kendrick.

(Squee-ee-ee — sorry, I can’t help it, but this is the romance I like best, the ones just simmering beneath the surface, without the *ahem* sparkle, thankyouverymuch!)

I admire writers who step up with stories they’ve always wanted to write, as opposed to what their audience wants to read, and this definitely paid off for Maggie Stiefvater. It’s a beautiful, heartwarming story that I’ve already read thrice since October, and it still hasn’t lost its charm.

I loved this book so much that I want to share it with you — I’m giving away three hardcover copies of The Scorpio Races, courtesy of Scholastic. Keep an eye out for the giveaway this weekend!

***
The Scorpio Races, uncorrected proof, 5/5 stars

The Scorpio Races is available at National Bookstore.