We’ve talked before about how certain books fit certain times of the year. I wrote a whole post a few years back about good Christmas reads, and Anna has mentioned that A Night in the Lonesome October is an excellent creepy story for Halloween. This year, as the darkness and cold began to descend, I decided to branch out from my typical winter reads and try a couple of new things that I’d seen recommended on social media.
A few people mentioned The Dark is Rising as an excellent Christmas re-read, and it was. This is the second in a series of five middle-reader books by Susan Cooper about children encountering mystical forces in England. The first one in the series is actually my favorite, but The Dark is Rising stands alone so you don’t need to read the others. It’s great for this time of the year because it takes place during Christmas and Advent and feels very winter-y. And although these books are not that old–they originally came out in the 1960s–they feel timeless, and read like classic children’s fantasy without any sort of modern angst or issues.
What I really want to talk about now, though, is The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, a book I’ve been avoiding for years but which has now officially joined my To Be Reread Every Year list. Stiefvater has a series of YA books that starts with The Raven Boys that I’ve reviewed here before and enjoyed just fine but didn’t looove. I’d seen discussions online about how The Scorpio Races was her best work–it was a Printz (like the YA Newberrys) honor book in 2012–but the descriptions of the book always sounded so grim, often quoting the very first line of the book: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” Does that sounds cheery? No, it does not. But I finally decided to give it a shot and it’s not a cheery book, but it is suspenseful and exciting and touching and I loooved it.
When I describe the plot this is going to sound like a crazy fantasy novel: every November, on a small island off the coast of (I think?) Ireland, magical, dangerous, predatory horses that live under the water come up on land. It’s island tradition to try to catch one of these horses and keep it under control long enough to win an annual race, which has now become a tourist attraction that is one of the few sources of income on the tiny island. I know, weird. However, once you’ve accepted this premise, the rest of the book is remarkably realistic. There are young people trying to figure out how to make a life and a living on a remote island, sibling dynamics, challenges of established gender roles, some solid villains, and a love story (which I am always a sucker for). The characters feel modern and relatable, but the remote island setting and lack of discussion of cell phones or other technology make the story feel out of time, like it could be taking place anytime from 1900 to today. And it’s always raining or foggy, and everyone’s always cold and wrapping up in sweaters, so it really is the perfect thing to read while under a blanket, drinking hot tea in the early winter darkness.
It took me a little time to get into this book, because the first few chapters felt so ominous. For the first 100 pages or so I had to talk myself into reading it each night because I was so so worried about what might happen next. After a little bit I got so swept up into the story that I couldn’t put the book down, but I definitely felt anxious at first. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so let me just say that if you start the book and you’re thinking, like I was, “Everyone and everything I love in this book is going to come to a terrible end,” don’t worry. Things get intense, but you’ll come out of it with hope, not despair.