Study Guide

The Scorpio Races Themes

By Maggie Stiefvater

  • Violence

    Red is the new black. By red, we mean the crimson red of spilled blood and gore. And by black, we mean the hot new thing in young-adult lit. See: The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen's brutal acts have nothing on the carnivorous horses of The Scorpio Races.

    If you're trying to genetically engineer water horses in a lab, follow this handy formula: Hannibal Lector + (zombies * seahorses) = capaill uisce. Not only are these creatures from the deep brutal, but they have no conscience. Beware if you're vacationing on the beaches of Thisby: The Scorpio Races are not for the squeamish.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Is the violence critical to the story? How would it be different without the violence?
    2. What acts of violence do the human characters commit?
    3. Can the capaill's violent nature be changed?
    4. Do the riders celebrate the violence of the horses, or do they fear it? Or both?

    Chew on This

    Living a life among the vicious capaill has desensitized Puck and Sean to violence.

    Traditional water horse myths are not watered-down kids's tales, so the violence is necessary in order to be accurate to the legends

  • Fear

    A regular seahorse is about as cute and cuddly as an underwater creature can be. (Moray eel… not even close.) The capaill uisce, however, though they might be horses and they might be from the sea, are definitely not seahorses. They're the scariest things to come out of the water since Jaws grew legs and came onto land. (Didn't that happen in, like, Jaws 17?)

    Most stories with animals are heartwarming tales about a boy or girl bonding with their dog/horse/armadillo. What is unique about The Scorpio Races is the heaping dose of pure fear Stiefvater piles onto the story. It's a rare moment indeed when a character isn't fearing for their own life or the life of a loved one. The constant fear makes the peaceful moments all the sweeter… but it also shows us how people learn to harness their fear and use it to achieve their goals.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What do Puck and Sean fear?
    2. How does Finn cope with his many fears?
    3. Is Gabe leaving the island because of fear, or for another reason?
    4. Dove fears the capaill (for good reason). Do the capaill fear anything?

    Chew on This

    While most people fear the capaill, Sean shows great compassion by being afraid for them. He'll do anything to keep them from getting hurt.

    The men don't want Puck to enter the Scorpio Races because they're afraid… afraid they're going to get beaten by a woman.

  • Competition

    Human beings love competition. From the Olympics in ancient Greece to, well, the Olympics in London, with every single sporting tournament and reality show in between, people love watching others fight, battle, and beat the shmoop out of one another in every conceivable way imaginable.

    We hate to keep bringing up The Hunger Games (okay, no we don't—we heart The Hunger Games), but it paved the way for this kind of nail-bitingly intense competition to enter the young-adult lit universe. Now that the way is paved, hungry horses from the sea are free to gallop down it and splatter it with the blood of their victims. A book called The Scorpio Races is ultimately about, you guessed it, races, and what people will do to win.

    Questions About Competition

    1. What is the main motivating factor for the men who compete in the Scorpio Races?
    2. Is Sean competitive by nature? What about Puck?
    3. If Thisby were not the home of the capaill, would the men of the island still compete against each other?
    4. Is the prize for winning the Scorpio Races worth it?

    Chew on This

    The Scorpio Races themselves are less about competition and more about tradition. These men are fighting to stay alive more than they're fighting each other.

    Mutt Malvern is the most competitive person in the race, going to great lengths to sabotage Sean. But he's not competing to win the race so much as he's competing for the affection of his own father.

  • Family

    If you kept your brother or sister or children in a barn, fed them hay, made them run dozens of miles a day, and occasionally gave them a bath by spraying them down with a hose… well, someone would probably call protective services. But if you keep your horse in a nice warm barn, feed them, ride them all over the countryside, and brush and bathe them… well, then they're family.

    Funny how that works. But family is different to different people. And to different species. All the human-to-human and human-to-horse relationships differ wildly, making this word very hard to define.

    Questions About Family

    1. Does Sean place any value on family?
    2. Why does Puck try to keep her family together? Why does Gabe want to leave, and why doesn't he care about the consequences?
    3. Besides the two main characters, what other families do we meet on the island? What kind of families are they?

    Chew on This

    Sean considers his horses as family members, and he'll always put them above any human.

    Puck, too, considers her horse as a family member, and she's guilty of putting her horse's needs over the needs of her brother.

  • Gender

    Horse racing isn't exactly a female-dominated sport. Women jockeys have to work twice as hard and don't get anywhere near half the fame their male counterparts enjoy. At least the ladies trying to make it to the Kentucky Derby don't have to worry about their horse biting their hands off like they do in The Scorpio Races.

    Puck has to hide from capaill in a haystack, and almost drowns in the ocean, but her toughest challenge might be overcoming the gender bias of all the other races. The Scorpio Races have been one big sausage party (alternate: male-dominated sport) since their inception, and these men aren't about to let Puck buck tradition. But horses and bucking go hand in hand right?

    Questions About Gender

    1. Why do the men not want a woman to participate in the Scorpio Races?
    2. Both male and female horses are allowed in the race. Why do gender biases not apply to the horses?
    3. Is Puck at a disadvantage because of her gender?
    4. Why do you think no woman before Puck has ever attempted to race?

    Chew on This

    Even the women on the island don't want Puck to participate in the races because the tradition is older than every single living person on the island.

    Puck isn't racing to make a statement; she's racing out of necessity. But that doesn't change the impact she's going to make on future generations.

  • Tradition and Customs

    Horse racing has many charming traditions, especially the Kentucky Derby—put on a goofy hat and drink mint juleps 'til you drop. The Scorpio Races's traditions are a little, um, less charming. Let's just run down a few:

    • a woman wearing a real horse's head (probably straight from an Italian mobster's bed) pretends to be a goddess
    • despite having a goddess, women aren't allowed to participate in the races
    • the rules seem to ensure all sorts of bloody carnage
    • but there is a parade… everyone loves parades, right?

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    • How do you think the tradition of the Scorpio Races originated?
    • Who do you think came up with the rules for the Scorpio Races?
    • How will the tradition change now that Puck, the first female, has not only raced, but won?
  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    We're not horse whisperers, but we imagine horses have pretty simple dreams: Some nice, delicious hay; a warm barn to sleep in; not becoming glue. Even though the island of Thisby is a simple place of good, hard-working folk, they have some big dreams too.

    Okay, no, they don't. There's a grand total of one person that wants to get off the island. The rest of them dream of staying there with the horses, the sounds of the ocean, and the smell of dead fish in the air. Ah, home. But they want to stay there because it makes them happy. Maybe happiness is a big dream after all.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. What are Sean and Puck's dreams for the future?
    2. Why does Gabe want to leave Thisby? Do you think he'd ever want to stay?
    3. What are Benjamin Malvern's plans? Would he be able to sustain a business without Sean?

    Chew on This

    If Puck agreed with Gabe, and wanted to move away from Thisby, there's no way she'd ever compete in the Scorpio Races.

    If Sean were a little more social, and didn't place Corr at the top of his priority list, he'd have quit the Scorpio Races many years ago.

  • Loyalty

    An important part of any competition, especially one that depends on survival, is alliances. Survivor may have popularized this concept of staying loyal to someone… until the time comes to proverbially cut their throat. The Hunger Games took the throat-cutting literally, and now the idea of being loyal up to a point (a knife point, that is) is in every story.

    The Scorpio Races is no different. An intense competition such as this one forces people to choose sides even though it's every man and woman for themselves in the end. Surprisingly, the races don't end up tearing most of these loyalties apart; instead they bring them closer together.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. By leaving for the mainland, is Gabe being disloyal to his family?
    2. Is Sean loyal to Benjamin Malvern even though he hates his son?
    3. Is it possible for a capall to be loyal to a human being?

    Chew on This

    On an island as small as Thisby, loyalty is the most valuable currency. These are families that have been on the island for generations, and trust is priceless.

    Any story about a man (or woman) and his animal of choice—whether it be dog, horse, or pig—is ultimately about loyalty. Animals might just be unconditionally loyal to their masters.

  • Poverty

    Horse racing is expensive, whether you're engaged in racing or just prancing and preening around a field in the horse version of a toddlers-and-tiaras pageant. (We're kidding, dressage, but you're hardly an Olympic sport… oh wait, you are.)

    Raising a horse isn't just like having another mouth to feed; it's like having a whole new family to feed. And the economic impact is hard. This is something Puck feels, as she has to feed herself, her brothers, and her horse. We also see the way the world is divided into haves and have-nots through the stable owner, Benjamin Malvern—a man who has everything and actively works to make sure his stable hands, like Sean, have nothing. Hmm, looks like the capaill aren't the only soulless bloodsuckers on the island…

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Can Sean be considered poor? What about Puck?
    2. How would The Scorpio Races be different if either Puck or Sean came from a rich background?
    3. Is Benjamin Malvern upper class when it comes to the island of Thisby? How does his class permit him to treat people differently?

    Chew on This

    Benjamin Malvern represents income inequality at its worst. The people who do all the work barely get enough money to survive, while he gets all the profits. Plus, he takes advantage of the poor by foreclosing on his homes.

    Benjamin Malvern is a shrewd businessman who has built his own empire from scratch, and a good businessman collects on debts owed.

  • Religion

    At first glance, sports and religion don't seem to go hand in hand. Competitive games seem to be about dividing people into winners vs. losers, and the really intense ones, like the Scorpio Races, are about beating the other guys as intensely as possible.

    But then, after a victory, it seems some sports player is always going to go and thank God. While we're staying out of the argument as to whether God is a Yankees or a Red Sox fan, it seems that religion does have a place in sports, in its own weird way.

    The Scorpio Races is no different, although religion's place is a little off-center. It's not a major theme, but there is a church on the island of Thisby, a character who is a priest, and a whole chapter set in a confessional both. There's something holy rolling around the island, and we're going to try to find out what it is.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Taking the figure of the Mare Goddess into consideration, are the Scorpio Races a religion?
    2. How does religion factor into Puck's life? How about into Sean's?
    3. What are Father Mooneyham's duties as the only priest on the island?

    Chew on This

    Religion isn't that big of a deal on the island: they only have one church, people seem to go only on Sundays (if then), and church attendance seems to generally be a thing of habit instead of a quest for spiritual guidance. The priest, in other words, is more a mentor than a religious figure.

    Religion is a huge deal on the island—it's just more the pagan flavor than the Catholic flavor. The Scorpio Races are steeped in human sacrifice that is older than any form of Christianity.