I’m doing this one kind of late today. It’s a busy busy time for me this month and this is the first moment I have to spend some time of this…
I’d like to applaud the work of Maggie Stiefvater, whose writing I have come to love. I don’t always fall for authors. I usually fall for particular books and don’t care to read other works by that author. As a writer myself, I can see how horrifying this is, but at the same time it’s all about the art and not the artist.
But I think I will read anything that Ms. Stiefvater writes. A couple of years ago, I read her modern werewolf series SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER and I was struck by the haunting poetry of her writing. And it was quite a story of survival and change and while the characters were a little thin, the style carried the work and I fell in love. Here’s the opening paragraph:
Chapter One – Grace
I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surround by wolves. They were licking me, worrying at my body, pressing in. Their huddled bodies blocked what little heat the sun offered. Ice glistened on their ruffs and their breath made opaque shapes that hung in the air around us. The musky smell of their coats made me think of wet dog and burning leaves, pleasant and terrifying. Their tongues melted my skin; their careless teeth ripped at my sleeves and snagged through my hair, pushed against my collarbone, the pulse at my neck.
Stephen King wrote a piece recently in The Atlantic on opening sentences and how writers can spend years crafting them. I must admit I browse through the bookstore opening books and reading the first line, then if the first line grabs me I read the next. If it doesn’t interest me by the end of that first paragraph, I put the book down.
What captures my attention? I guess it depends, but style and quality of writing is key. Sure I’ve read books that were badly written and enjoyed them thoroughly. I hate to leave books started and unread. There are only a couple out there that I started and didn’t finish. Like J.K. Rowling’s CASUAL VACANCY. It’s about the work, not the author.
Here is the opening to Ms. Stiefvater’s stand-alone book THE SCORPIO RACES, which I read recently:
NINE YEARS EARLIER
It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
Can’t stop there can you!
Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.
“Hooves?” Wait! What hooves?
They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.
This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it is like to be warm and what a full night’s sleep feels like and what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across yards of sand.
I am so so alive.
AHHHHH, and so am I!
Okay I must stop before I leave the computer to re-read this fantastic book. We learn that the horses that are racing are actually water horses, mythical and deadly creatures that come from the sea and eat raw, and often human, flesh and drink blood. We meet Sean about ten years later after being introduced to the other main character Puck, a spunky 17 year old orphan who lives with her older and younger brothers and loves to race her very normal horse. While the water horses, or “capaill uisce” as they are called in the book, are mythical the story is firmly rooted in what feels like our reality. The timeframe is uncertain. The setting is an island, cut off from much communication and even visitation from the mainland and there doesn’t seem to be modern technology like phones, no computers, but there are cars that remind me of Model Ts in their descriptions.
Sean has grown up to be a champion racer of these wild beasts and the only one on the island who seems to understand them. Also an orphan, he works as a trainer for the local rich horse breeder. Puck discovers that her family is about to lose their house due to lack of money and she enters the capaill uisce race on a whim to win the prize money and spite the older brother who has also informed her he is leaving her and her brother behind for the mainland.
As Puck enters Sean’s world, there is an understanding between the two of them and, of course, an eventual romance. But it’s not about the romance as so many of these other paranormal teen romance books. It’s them against the world, but it’s before they even like each other.
I don’t want to spoil much about the twists and turns but it kept me surprised and wondering how it would end. I would say that the world Ms. Stiefvater created was phenomenal, full of details and atmosphere. The story itself, and again maybe the characters, sang the notes she wanted them to sing and they came alive for me, but they were not as rich as that world. In her acceptance speech for the Michael L. Printz Honor for THE SCORPIO RACES, she quoted A TALE OF TIME CITY by Diana Wynne Jones, a book she read and loved as a ten year old:
Jonathan said. “What do you want if I can get it to work?”
“Forty-two Century butter-pie,” Sam said, as if it was obvious…Wonderful tastes filled her mouth, everything buttery and creamy she had ever tasted, with just a hint of toffee, and twenty other even better tastes she had never met before, all of it icy cold…at that moment, she bit through into the middle of the butter-pie. And it was hot. Runny, syrupy hot.
Ms. Steifvater goes on to lament that these pies do NOT exist in the real world and how tormented she was that she could not experience what the writer and written so scrumptiously. It’s the detail. It’s the world. Maggie Steifvater takes us there in her works.
I’m looking forward to reading her new series THE RAVEN BOYS.