I warm Dove up in easy, trotted circles. I keep waiting for my body to relax, to forget where I am, but I can’t. Every reflection on the water makes me jerk. My body is screaming at me about the threat of that black ocean. I remember the story we’re all told as soon as we become teens, of the two teen lovers who met illicitly out on the beach, only to be dragged into the waves by a waiting water horse. It was considered a good cautionary tale to all the youth of Skarmouth: That would teach us to kiss.
But that story never seemed real, told in a classroom or related over a counter. Here on the beach, it feels like a promise.
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Synopsis: Kate “Puck” Connolly wants to save the remainder of her family: her brothers, her little horse Dove, and the home they once shared with her parents on the island of Thisby.
Sean Kendrick wants his own roof over his head and the rightful ownership of the deadly red capall uisce (water horse) with whom he shares a powerful bond.
Puck and Sean ride in the often-fatal Scorpio Races for different reasons, but situation and similarity of passion and courage draw them together. Without Sean, who knows and can handle the dangerous water horses, Puck wouldn’t survive. Without Puck, who understands fierce and desperate loyalty, Sean could lose everything he loves. But they can’t both win.
Notes: In a breath-catching take on water horse mythology (of which kelpies are perhaps the most well-known name), Maggie Stiefvater gives us the rocky, stormy island of Thisby—a reasonably modern setting with strong overtones of fantasy and magic. Every year when the rains come to Thisby, the capaill uisce (CAPple ISHka, as per the author’s note) climb from the sea. They’re horses in form and color, but large, predatory, and always drawn back to the waters from whence they came.
And on this island, where man-eating horses roam in the storms and are captured, trained and raced every November, Stiefvater gives us Sean and Puck. Puck reminds me a little of Suzanne Collins’ Katniss, partly owing to her temper and partly to situation, but she’s a trace younger and a good bit less sure of herself. More to her credit, however, she’s an observer, and her unusual thoughts were one of the best aspects of this story.
The book’s usual marketing synopses focus on Puck as the first girl to ride in the Scorpio Races, suggesting something of a feminist undercurrent to the tale, but Puck’s actual position is a bit foolhardy and very dependent upon Sean’s aid. While giving us an undeniably strong heroine, Stiefvater apparently refused, appreciably, to force her story into political correctness. Instead, Puck's true power lies in her depth, her loyalty, and her personal victories, all of which are more important on a human level than the outcome of the races.
Sean was another of the best things about the book. He’s a rare find in young adult lit: a male lead who isn’t high romantic fantasy, who loves his horse nearly as much as his girl, and who speaks—when he does speak, which isn’t often—with the voice of Sean Kendrick and no one else. Little and dark and severe, Sean is the name everyone calls when there’s danger on the beach. After spending his nineteen years working with an animal that will nuzzle up to you one moment and rip your throat out the next, he knows how to be wary without being afraid, and he’ll need every flicker of that instinct to deal with the hatred of his wealthy boss’ son.
The novel’s third great success was the mythology of the capaill uisce themselves. Stiefvater portrays them with all the beauty and mystique of a horse, all the danger of grizzly bears, and all the magic of the Pegasus. They run better than Thoroughbreds and rise from the sea to steal fishermen off boats. Puck and her brother hide from one in one of the most terrifying little hold-your-breath scenes I’ve ever read (which kept me awake one night, hours after I read it). Riders use endless tricks to convince them to run down the beach in a straight line instead of turning to attack or carrying them out to sea; Sean controls his red stallion with spit and iron, numbered knots and red ribbons, and intense love and loyalty.
Owing to the nature of the beasts, as it were, the book has its violent points and may not be for the squeamish. It’s no Mockingjay, but there are several deaths and attacks that significantly out-gruesome, say, Harry Potter, bloodwise.
Stiefvater’s prose, observation and nuance of character rank among the best of current young adult literature. As a general rule, I don't care for present-tense narrative (but see this article for a defense of it, if the topic interests you) and am picky about first-person; Stiefvater triumphed over both flawlessly.
As religion comes into the thought processes of both narrating characters—Puck as a Catholic, Sean as someone who “believes in the same thing they do” but doesn’t believe “that it can be found in a building”—I’ll say that the tale offers an interesting, if shallowly-explored, side-by-side portrayal of the old island paganism and the still-old but newer Christianity. Both are shown as imperfect but beautiful. A couple of the comments made by the characters suggest a rather inaccurate understanding of the latter. But Stiefvater created the priest, Father Mooneyham, as a gentle, praying man who understands grace—someone rather like the real priests most of us Catholics know and love. This is much harder to find in modern fiction than in modern life. For such a fair treatment, the author has my appreciation.
The ending took me by surprise at a few turns and a few details probably could have been more clearly resolved, but it was beautiful overall. Anything else I can think to say about it would involve spoilers, and I wouldn’t recommend those. It's worth letting it come to you itself.
Recommendation: Read it by the sea, if you can get there. If not, read it wherever suits you. But probably not before bed.