This fantasy novel by Maggie Stiefvater is published by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., and is written for kids ages 14 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Sean Kendrick and Puck Connolly are teenagers living on Thisby Island. The small island is famous for its annual Scorpio Races, in which people from miles around race terrifying water horses called capall uisce. These large, vicious creatures emerge hungry from the sea and frequently tear into any human or animal they can find. Years earlier, water horses killed Sean's father and Puck's parents, leaving both kids orphans.
Sean knows how to manage the capall uisce better than anyone in Thisby. He works for the wealthy Benjamin Malvern who owns impressive stables and many other parts of the island. Sean hates being under Malvern's thumb and the watchful eye of Malvern's jealous son, Mutt. What he wants more than anything is to purchase Malvern's water horse, Corr. He feels a special bond with the capall uisce, as they've already won several Scorpio Races together. Malvern refuses to sell Corr and makes it hard for Sean to strike out on his own.
Puck lives with older brother, Gabe, and younger brother, Finn. They struggle to put food on the table, and Malvern threatens to evict them. Puck is overwhelmed when she learns Gabe plans to leave them and move to the mainland. She believes if she can win the Scorpio Races, their financial problems will be over and Gabe won't feel the need to leave. Both because she's female and because she's racing with her horse, Dove, rather than a capall uisce, she meets with fierce opposition from the locals.
When her mare is in danger because of fierce water horses practicing nearby on the beach, Sean tells her to keep her pony off the beach. Eventually, Sean helps Puck learn to race. As the day of the race approaches, the island comes alive with guests, festivals and intense training rituals. Wealthy mainlanders bargain with Malvern for his capall uisce. Riders make blood pledges to participate in the races. Mutt bullies Sean, and he severely injures a horse, thinking it is Corr. Men in training are injured and killed by the fierce water horses.
Puck and Sean's relationship intensifies, but both know they must win the race in order to achieve their personal goals. During the race, Mutt makes his capall uisce injure Corr's legs so the water horse can never race again. Even without Sean and Corr to protect her from other water horses, Puck wins the race. While she's excited to be able to save their home, she's concerned for Sean's emotional and financial losses. Puck learns Finn has made a bet on her and won enough money to allow Sean to buy Corr. Since the injured horse is of no value to Malvern now, he agrees to sell Corr. Sean buys the disabled horse and tries to return it to the sea. Corr walks away from the sea and back to Sean.
Puck and her brothers pray at mealtime. Most of the islanders attend St. Columba's church. When Puck thinks dark thoughts about her brother during Mass, she worries that she'll go to hell if she dies in the next few hours. She later goes to confession and notes how the church's confessional booth was built as an afterthought. As she confesses to Father Mooneyham, she tries to convince the priest that her anger toward Gabe is a sin. The priest tells her to meditate on the story of the prodigal son and gives her some Hail Marys to say just to make her feel better.
A mainlander named George Holly sees Sean tending horses on a Sunday rather than going to church and asks him if he's a believer. Sean says he believes the same thing the churchgoers do, but he doesn't believe you can find it in a building. Holly says he'll look for Sean's God out in nature with Sean, but Sean suspects Holly won't find his (Holly's) sort of God this way. Holly later says he can feel God's presence when he's with Sean. Sean tells him to repeat what he said in a couple of weeks, after seeing dead bodies all over the beach. Sean later notes the hypocrisy of a Christian woman in town who has religious objections to dancing in the streets but not to races where men are killed.
Other Belief Systems
Puck mentions that her dad's religion was all about knowing the difference between want and need. Pondering life and death at the funeral of a capall uisce victim, Finn thinks about his soul. Gabe tells him just to be decent, which is as good a religion as any type their parents had.
After someone dressed as an island goddess tells Sean to make a wish, he whispers his wishes to the sea. Seeing Corr in pain, Puck says she doesn't know if she can believe in any island god or goddess right now. And if she did believe, she could only assume they were cruel.
The Lord's name is used in vain, and the words b--tard, d--n, h---, b--ch-, a--, crap and p--- appear several times. There are numerous bloody and disturbing images, demonstrating the brutality of the capall uisce. The water horses tear through human flesh and kill people. They trample humans, fling half-chewed body parts and snap off people's fingers with their teeth. They sometimes leave mutilated animals, such as sheep, on the roadside. The waters are often bloody. In a pre-race ceremony, riders cut themselves and make a blood pledge to ride. Islanders believe if they give the island blood before the race, she won't take so much of it during the race.
A number of veiled sexual references appear, from a dirty song a boy sings about Puck's skirts to the suggestion that a female character is "doing" the butcher. Several innuendos liken riding a horse to having sex. A local woman flirtatiously pinches Holly several times while he's waiting in line. George is having a love affair with a blind islander named Annie. Characters make several references to breasts (using the word tit) and courage (using the word balls).
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Curses: It is an island custom to write something with charcoal on a piece of paper and throw it into the sea to curse someone.
Alcohol: Puck finds her brother drinking at a local pub and chides him. She says their father hadn't wanted him to drink. She reminds him he'd told Dad he wouldn't.
Roles: The island men are angry when Puck enters the race, stating that having women on the beach racing reverses the natural order of things. They bully and try to intimidate her. Even women of the island tell her that if she tries to be too much like the men, her feminine "mystery" will be gone, and men won't seek her out romantically.
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Readability Age Range
14 and up
Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.
Michael L. Printz Honor Book, 2012; YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2012