November Cakes: The Food of THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater

stiefvater scorpio racesWhile I quickly consumed the Shiver trilogy, and even bought FOREVER in hardback, I waited to read THE SCORPIO RACES. When I love a book, I want more from the author. So there being two books out in the Raven Cycle now, I figured it was good time to pick up a Stiefvater book again. The fact that the books are unrelated, doesn't matter so much. It's the author's voice I love. In a single word, my feelings for THE SCORPIO RACES can be summed up as "disappointed". I wonder if this is in part because Stiefvater has said this is her favourite book; she loves it more than SHIVER. An author is the expert on her own work, right? Hmm. Let's come back to that question later.

THE SCORPIO RACES is about an annual race on the island of Thisby. Every October, the killer water horses, capaill uisce, rise up out of the ocean and come on land, killing sheep and humans to satisfy their blood craving. For some reason, these locals have deemed it necessary to capture and tame these over-sized horses, and race them in November when the capaill uisce flood the waters around the island. Why? For a big pile of money, it seems. If there's a better reason, only Stiefvater knows. And this was the main reason for my disappointment. I'm not a horse person-- I think they're beautiful creatures and I like being around them, but aside from a brief phase in my teens, I've never wanted one for my own-- but I still should have been able to understand why these islanders stay on the island, why they aren't building walls to keep the capaill uisce out, why they aren't shooting down every killer horse they see. And yet, aside from "this is life on Thisby", I'm at a loss for how to explain it.

Aside from the flawed premise, there's a love story going on between Sean Kendrick, the boy who's won the last four Scorpio Races, and Kate (Puck) Connelly, the first girl to ever enter the race. The love story was well done. I thought their relationship development was very realistic and not overly "head over heels, love at first sight" as in so many other novels, and yet it still felt "fated". The two characters also had their own problems to deal with, which I also appreciated. Sean was dealing with his life as a minion of the richest man on the island, and the fact that he might be the Scorpio champion, but he didn't own his horse. While Kate was dealing with transitions in her family with her eldest brother wanting to leave the island and their home being eleven months behind in rent (owed to the richest man on Thisby). So they both have their own reasons for wanting to win the race this year.

I also wonder if my disappointment stems from the outcome never really being in jeopardy and that there's little conflict for Kate and Sean. Kate wants to enter the race, so she does. She meets resistance-- but never any real conflict. Stuff happens to her-- she doesn't force stuff to happen. Same with Sean, really. He wants to own Corr, the capaill uisce he's been training and racing for last several years. The owner won't sell. At one point, Sean quits, but we all know the owner can't get along without him. I wanted very much to see these characters forge their paths, take greater risks, instead of being caught in the current and tossed up against the shore. I wanted them to make tough choices; I didn't want things to be so easy. I wanted Puck to choose to ride a water horse. I wanted her to seek out Sean to train her-- and I wanted to see him risk his job to train her because he believed in her.

IMG_0232People come to the island from all over to witness the Scorpio Race, and the island celebrates with parades and costumes and revelry-- and November cakes. (Bet you thought I'd never get to food part. :) In the afterword, Stiefvater explains that she wanted to create a special food for the book because she felt it added to the world-building. This being from her own experience in reading Diana Wynne Jones's book that contained an imaginative food (butter pies on a stick, that to me sound rather like butter tarts).

"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." -- Maggie Stiefvater, THE SCORPIO RACES, page 176

I love that Stiefvater invented November cakes for THE SCORPIO RACES, because, as you know, I love reading about food in stories, and I love it when an author goes the extra mile to write a story.

IMG_0225Of course, I had to try making them. Here is the recipe.

November cakes are messy-- messy to make and messy to eat. The cake itself is light and fluffy, but I found it too sticky. Perhaps it needs another cup of flour, because I couldn't roll it up with the filling very well-- after all the rising, the finished cakes had smooth tops and no filling, so perhaps a yeast-free cake base would work better. Also, the filling was much too runny. Perhaps softened butter instead of melted butter, so it spreads. But very tasty, buttery and sweet-- just as described in THE SCORPIO RACES.

Well, if those poor people on Thisby have to be bothered by killer water horses, at least they have November cakes for comfort.