Book Review: Carry On (Rowell), The Scorpio Races (Stiefvater)

The theme of this post is “books by authors I have met recently!” Which is not so much a theme as it is the only thing these books have in common, but okay. No, wait! They have one more thing in common: I am in total, head-over-heels, frothing-at-the-mouth in love with them.

Rainbow Rowell came to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in October as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series. Here’s how that week played out: Tuesday, Carry On arrived at my doorstep. I read it in its 522-page entirety on Wednesday instead of studying for the GRE, which I took on Thursday afternoon, mere hours before Rowell’s lecture. Clearly my priorities are in order. I told Rowell that I had no regrets for my abysmal time management and she signed my book to that effect, which was pretty great. Rowell is exactly as charming and delightful as a person named Rainbow ought to be.

A few weeks later Maggie Stiefvater spoke at Carnegie Mellon University as part of PARSEC’s YA lecture series. Stiefvater has been for a while now one of my “problematic faves,” as the kids say, and she was so irreverently hilarious in person that I no longer feel any qualms about having her on my “people I want to be when I grow up” list. (Although she should, perhaps, step away from Twitter every now and again.)

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Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

★★★★★

[SCREAMS INTO THE VOID FOR ONE MILLION YEARS]

Okay, now that my initial reaction is out of the way: Let’s talk about Carry On.

Those of you who read Fangirl (and those of you who haven’t: explain yourselves!) will remember Simon Snow as Fangirl’s Harry Potter analogue — a magical boy whose adventures, written by fictional author Gemma T. Leslie, provide the literary fuel for Cath’s fanfiction, “Carry On, Simon.” (I will definitely be writing more about Fangirl later on; it is an Important Book.)

I was initially worried that Carry On would end up as a straight (or queer, ha ha) riff on Harry Potter, and that its narrative bones wouldn’t be strong enough for it to stand on its own apart from both Harry Potter and Fangirl — those seemed like the most obvious pitfalls when turning fictional fanfiction into a real book. But Rowell hit it out of the park. O me of little faith! When will I learn to trust my favorite authors? (Answer: after the seventh Harry Potter book, never again. Why you gotta play me like that, JKR?)

That’s not to say that those overtly derivative elements aren’t present. The debt Carry On owes to Harry Potter is obvious from page one, and while it does diverge more and more as the story progresses I don’t think it will ever be possible to divorce Carry On from Harry Potter completely.

Of course, a derivative nature is not necessarily a bad thing. Wicked, for instance, has inherent, independent value even if it’s entirely derivative of The Wizard of Oz, and Carry On’s ties to its “canon” are played rather more fast and loose. Honestly, that’s part of what I liked about Carry On — as someone who loves Harry Potter, it was fun to read book that says, “What if Harry Potter were like this instead?”

In other words: fanfiction.

But also not fanfiction. Rowell isn’t just taking the Harry/Draco subplot from Half Blood Prince, changing the names and spinning it out into its own novel (although there are strong echoes of “I need to know what Malfoy is doing inside you” in Carry On, to my perverse delight). She’s picking up what Rowling put down, then shaping it into something new. Derivative, yes, but transformative and innovative as well.

Rowell also does what Rowling was too much of a candy-ass to do: put in explicit queer representation. I particularly enjoyed the way Rowling handled the difference between Baz and Simon’s queer experiences — Baz gets the “born this way” narrative while Simon gets the sudden revelation, both of which are totally valid and real. It’s also so great to see a queer romance as a subplot, rather than the driving narrative force. This isn’t a book focused on the ins and outs of being a queer teenager, but rather a book that’s got queer teenagers doing other stuff. That might seem like a small distinction, but I appreciated it. Plus, Baz and Simon are so great together, it makes me want to fling myself into the ocean!!! (This is a totally rational reaction! What do you mean, “overdramatic”?)

I’m really looking forward to reading fanfiction about a book that started as fictional fanfiction of a fictional book in another book… if it doesn’t cause some kind of paradoxical singularity and collapse the universe first.

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The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

★★★★★

The Scorpio Races was one of those books that I just kept meaning to read but never got around to, for one reason or another. Stiefvater’s lecture at CMU finally spurred me to read it, but I didn’t actually get a copy until afterwards because that is my way. Needless to say I’m now kicking myself for not reading this years ago, because it is basically everything I want from a YA novel — not just from the novel I want to read, but the novel I want to write. The Scorpio Races is the new gold standard for Things Megan Likes.

Every November, the island of Thisby holds a horse race along its scenic beaches and cliffs. The race fuels the island’s entire economy — it’s not exactly a tourist destination otherwise. The novel’s plot centers on two entrants in the races: Sean Kendrick, the reigning champion who decides to make a dangerous gamble, and Puck Connolly, the first girl to ever enter the races. Sean and Puck’s actions begin to unravel the tightly-wound traditions of Thisby, and as the races creep closer and closer, they are both faced with unexpected consequences.

One last thing: the races are on capaill uisce, the flesh-eating amphibious horses that live in the sea surrounding Thisby.

When describing this book, it’s tempting to lead with the capaill uisce — because honestly, flesh-eating amphibious horses! — but honestly that’s… not really the point?The Scorpio Races is strongly character-driven, and the capaill uisce are merely the hook to draw readers into Puck and Sean’s interior worlds. This is really a book about making decisions, and living up to expectations, and going after what you want. There’s also a bit of a nice romance, which is almost always a plus in my mind.

They might not be the actual point of the book, but I would be remiss to not talk about the capaill uisce, because they’re amazing. The fastest, strongest horses you could ever hope for, champions across the board, out there in the wild for the taking… but they might also tear you limb from limb. With the capaill uisce, Stiefvater does a really great job of keeping the undercurrent of visceral fear that’s present in all good fairy tales. The water horses are beautiful but terrifying, as likely to rip your throat out with their teeth as they are to carry you across the finish line.

Stiefvater’s love of mythology comes through really clearly in all of her work, The Scorpio Races included, but she likes to play by her own rules. She doesn’t do what Rick Riordan does (to pick on another author famous for mythology) and borrow characters and creatures and plots wholesale from mythology, but instead takes an idea — werewolves in The Wolves of Mercy Falls, water horses in The Scorpio Races, Glendower and psychics and about a hundred more things in The Raven Cycle — and uses it as a starting point to cast out a plot. I quite like this approach, as it leads to different places than a more traditional adaptation would; some fairy tale adaptations have a feeling of being on rails, always hitting the same plot beats and ending up in the same place. Stiefvater’s work tends to leave you guessing — I had no idea how the race would end up until it actually happened.

My favorite thing about The Scorpio Races — aside from the capaill uisce — is that it has that elusive fairy-tale feeling of happening outside of time. Stiefvater cleverly manages to evade any details that would fasten Thisby to a particular place or era. If it must be nailed down, it’s “vaguely Ireland” and “vaguely twentieth century,” but it’s much closer to “nowhere” and “never,” or possibly “everywhere” and “always.” That’s not to say that the wold of the Scorpio Races is vague — quite the opposite. Stiefvater weaves a rich tapestry of a world, even though it’s constantly shifting around the edges. Thisby might not belong to a time or a place, but it feels solid and lived-in.

No, wait, my actual favorite thing about The Scorpio Races is the NOVEMBER CAKES. This could probably be filed under “atmospheric details” but deserves a special mention for vividness and also delicousness. The November cakes are the traditional festival food associated with the races, essentially a hot crossed bun:

Finn finds my left hand, opens my fingers, and puts a November cake in my palm. It oozes honey and butter, rivulets of the creamy frosting joining the honey in the pit of my hand. It begs to be licked. Someone nearby screams like a water horse. My heart goes like a rabbit’s.

(The Scorpio Races, Chapter 29)

Stiefvater, because she is a PEACH, provided a recipe on her blog, and I have been meaning to bake a batch since even before I read the book, because they sound delicious. Expect a future blog post with my baking misadventures.

One final note: Since I loved the Raven Cycle and The Scorpio Races so much, I recently started reading Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series. It’s actually unbelievable how much she leveled up between Shiver in 2009 and The Scorpio Races in 2011 — I couldn’t even finish Shiver because the Teen Drama was unbearable. I suppose if you publish ten novels in eight years, you’re bound to learn a few things. Next time I see Stiefvater I’m going to make her a little ribbon that says Most Improved.

 

 

 

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