By Maggie Stiefvater
Sea foam-misted Thisby is the exotic setting for this unique retelling of the myth of the Water Horse, or “Capaill Uisce,” of Celtic Legend. But the story is more than just a clever myth retold, it is the story of plucky, redheaded, orphan, Kate Connelly, a.k.a. Puck, who has the courage to challenge a cultural tradition hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old in order to save her family home. It is also the story of another orphan, mysterious Sean Kendrick, a quiet horse-whisperer who has won the traditional Scorpio Race the last four years, and whose restless spirit is searching for more than just a job on millionaire Mr. Malvern’s horse farm—Sean wants to own his beloved and dangerous stallion, Kor. Even though he knows that Kor is a killer, a breathtaking stallion that will feast upon human flesh if left to his own devices. When these two orphans come face to face, who will win the race and capture their hearts’ desire; or, will their desires change?
So much is admirable about this novel that it is difficult to isolate the magic that makes it one of the finest works in young adult literature today. First off, the mythology of the Water Horse is seamlessly incorporated into a modern Thisby—so much so that one cannot imagine that Water Horses might not actually exist. The descriptions of the horses are so rich, so precise, that one can smell the briny fish-stink of their hides and see the glitter of their slanted, dark fish eyes. Indeed, it is not hard to feel the horses, smell the horses, visualize the water horses and fear the havoc they can bring to Thisby. Additionally, minor characters are superbly developed—from mildy autistic Finn (Puck’s brother) who struggles to control his own grief over his parent’s death to Gabe (Puck’s older brother), a conflicted young man unsure of the future, to the three sisters who own a tourist shop and who function as wise, “aunties” to Puck—each character will resonate with readers. And who doesn’t know an evil bully like Mutt Malvern whose jealousy and hatred consumes him?
Ironically, this bloody, action-packed story at times has romantic overtones but not in a traditional sense. The love that Sean shares with his horse, for example, is perhaps the closest relationship in the novel, yet the love that Puck feels for her family and the land that surrounds her mirrors Sean’s passion for Kor. Thisby is an island of wonder and magic that will certainly captivate readers. In fact, Thisby itself almost serves as a character, an island with a thirst for human blood, that is home for flesh-eating horses, but an island that Sean and Puck love and would be lost without. With an ending that is hard to predict yet more satisfying than expected, horse lovers, lovers of romance and orphan narratives, and readers of all ages will be beg for a Water Horse series upon finishing this book. Yet this novel is a masterpiece that would be difficult to improve upon.