[note: I wrote this about a month ago for a different context, but wanted to repost it here b/c The Scorpio Races is a finalist for the LA Times YA book of the year and the award ceremony is tonight. Friends: read this book.]
I’ve been hoarding the last few episodes of Friday Night Lights. They’re at the top of my Netflix cue, and I parcel them out to myself in small doses, every time I need an emotional dose of Dillon, Texas. That quiet, joyful openness: where will I get it once Dillon is gone?
Here’s one surprising answer: Maggie Steifvater’s newish young adult fantasy novel, The Scorpio Races (2011, Scholastic). You don’t like YA lit, or fantasy? Doesn’t matter. If are a lover of Friday Night Lights, then The Scorpio Races may well be your new favorite book.
I know it’s a weird comparison. If you’re like me, you think of FNL and YA fantasy as entirely different pleasures. FNL is about the quiet, tender joy of watching good people go about the daily business of figuring out how to live life well. YA literature, these days, is more about ratcheting up the drama and then squealing about it with your joyful lady friends. Let’s be clear: I passionately love YA literature. I love to squeal. I love high drama. But it’s a pleasure to find a novel about and for young people that’s doing something else.
Look at Amazon’s YA fantasy bestseller list, and you will find a series of novels trying to generate Twilight’s set of thrilling desires: every feeling urgently important, every decision with life or death hanging in the balance. You will find angels and werewolves and cultural devastation, drama galore.
The Scorpio Races has something in common with this norm–after all, it’s fantasy; it’s about about an island populated by magical, beautiful, flesh-eating horses. And the cover blurb trumpets the novel’s drama, how it’s about two characters “swept up in a daring, dangerous race across a cliff—with more than just their lives at stake should they lose.”
I think this is terrible marketing. The Scorpio Races, despite its magical beasts and the thrill of riding them, is not about drama or the triumph of the passions. It’s just about a little island called Thisby, and some people who love living there. Like Friday Night Lights’s account of Dillon, Stiefvater’s novel is about the beauty of Thisby’s life. It’s about characters who, unlike so many YA figures, keep the drama of their life in perspective.
I’m the last one to knock a good readerly squeal, but I want to make a case for The Scorpio Races’ on its own quiet terms. Rather than try and shoe-horn it into a high-drama YA mold, let me pitch this novel to you in the language any Friday Night Lights fan will understand
Clear Eyes: Sean Kendrick
Sean Kendrick, The Scorpio Races’ hero, is no Edward Cullen. Thank freaking god. He is closer to, though not the same as, Matt Saracen. Think Matt Saracen with Jason Street’s talent, and a horse instead of a grandmother. He’s not exactly hot: he has no tattoos or sparkles or wings. What does he look like? Who cares what he looks like. He’s appealing because of how he looks at things. “He’s one of those rare men who can make a horse work for him but never asks for more than they have.” His dad dies on page two and this is both terrible and, he knows, not the world’s deepest trauma. It’s a bad thing that happened, and he has had to make peace with it.
Full Hearts: Sean Kendrick and Kate Connelly
“Sean reaches out and takes my wrist. He presses his thumb on my pulse.” This is perhaps the bated-breath highlight of The Scorpio Races’s romance, between its two leads Sean Kendrick and Kate Connelly. Want to know what happens after this heart-flipping moment? Let me assure you that it does not involve Kate sacrificing her family, her humanity, or even her dinner. Instead, Kate and Sean nod and go home, because they have work to do—and they know that, if love stood in the way of the work that matters, it wouldn’t really be love.
Sean and Kate are not like Eric and Tammy Taylor, as characters. But as a couple, they sort of are. Here’s why: there is no drama. It’s like when, at the end of FNL season one, Eric gets a job offer and Tammy gets pregnant, and they’re like: well, this will be hard, but obviously we will just do our best and see what happens? And how that is the most romantic and wonderful thing that ever happened in a television marriage, because details are not important compared to their solid bedrock of intimate affection? Sean and Kate’s nascent romance is like that. You will not squeal or pant. But you will believe that it’s a rising tide changing the characters’ hearts and the way they think about their decisions.
Can’t Lose: The Scorpio Races
As a wise lady once said, “Friday Night Light’s is about football in the way that Finnegan’s Wake is about perambulation.” The Scorpio Races is about a horse race in the same sort of way. The novel’s climactic race lets Stiefvater tell a story that’s really about other things—in this case, a list that includes: small towns, quiet determination, old rituals, beloved younger brothers, Ireland kind of, doing something really amazing really well, windy days on a cliff, good cake.
It’s also, most importantly, about really loving an animal. And in this way, although it sounds blasphemous, The Scorpio Races is more moving to me than Friday Night Lights. I can appreciate football all day long and it still won’t open me up like an animal’s intimate gaze. Reading about Kate Connelly’s deep knowledge of her mare Dove, or Sean Connelly’s special bond with Corr, the magical horse who his father feared—well. All I can say is that, after turning the book’s final page, I stretched out next to my dog, elongated on the floor, and lay for fifteen minutes with my nose pressed to her neck, my eyes full of quiet, happy, tears. Reading Scorpio Races makes you feel like that, like the scruffy neck of a dog you love like your own skin.
Since finishing The Scorpio Races, I’ve been opening it before bed, riffling through the pages like it was a diary full of my own old dreams. “I make an apple cake and feel rather virtuous about it.” “I will have a farm and you will bring me bread for dinner.” “The sky and the sand and the sea and Corr.”
I don’t think The Scorpio Races is going to have a sequel. Like Friday Night Lights, it’s a limited run. But already the words are under my skin. I think about Kate and Corr and Sean and Dove. And I know that their quiet island’s magic has already given me a book’s best gift: a new place to call home.