***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: a long build-up to a very short actual race, with Ms. Stiefvater focused laser-like on character and setting, while losing track of plot and pacing again.
Plot summary (so I don't forget). The book starts with a flashback: little Sean Kendrick watches his father get killed on the beach at the Scorpio races. His dad is riding Corr, one of the capaill uisce--sea horses that have been snatched from the water and barely tamed, and are famed for their speed and murderous unpredictability. Before the race, young Sean whispers to Corr not to eat his dad, and Corr technically obliges him.
In the present day, Sean Kendrick has grown up into a talented, hunky stable hand, and a four-time winner of the Scorpio Races. He longs to buy Corr, having a special bond with the horse, but his boss, Benjamin Malvern (think Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life) won't sell him. Malvern makes Sean live in a tiny room above the stables, but even so, he likes Sean better than his own spoiled, useless son, Matthew (Mutt). Mutt resents Sean so badly, his anger escalates from peeing in Sean's boots to trying to kill him.
Puck Connely decides to ride in the Scorpio Races, too. At first she wants to do it to keep her brother Gabe from moving to the mainland for a few weeks longer (he can't leave without watching that she comes through safely, can he?), but soon she's hoping to actually win, in order to pay off the mortgage on their house, which Malvern is calling due. Puck didn't know Malvern was her family's mortgage lender, but that's okay because neither did we.
Puck is not going to ride a water horse, she's going to ride her beloved Dove, an ordinary but devoted palfrey. When it's clear that the male islanders and riders hate the idea of a woman in the race, Puck and Sean begin to train together. Corr is relatively polite to Dove, and might even fancy her, which is unusual for a water horse. And Dove might actually have a chance at winning, because she can run in a straight line without trying to kill things or leap into the water. Nevertheless, her posted odds are 45 to 1. Sean and Puck decide that on race day she'll take a path through the water, where the other riders are afraid to go, and Sean will protect her flank.
An American customer of Malvern, George Holly, would like to hire Sean away, but Sean won't leave Corr. Sean eventually bargains with Malvern to let him buy Corr if he wins the race one more time.
On race day, Mutt threatens Puck, knowing that Sean cares about her. Mutt's water horse, Skata, attacks Dove. Sean and Corr drive him into the sea, where he's never heard from again. Sean falls off Corr, and is in danger of being trampled to death by the other horses. Corr stands over him, protecting him, but has such a badly wounded leg, he'll never run again. Puck and Dove win the race.
Puck has earned enough to buy back her house, but there's not enough left over to buy Corr. Luckily, Puck's younger brother, Finn, reveals that he has used some of the money from selling his car to bet on Puck, and at 45:1 odds, the winnings turn out to be a hefty sum. Puck meets with Benjamin Malvern to pay off the house and buy Corr for Sean. She also demands a job at the stables.
At the end, while George Holly and Puck watch, Sean tries to release Corr back into the sea, where his wounded leg won't bother him. (We are supposed to take that as fact, but don't water horses depend on their legs to swim?) Corr refuses to leave, gimping along after him toward land. Awww.
Hot damn, Ms. Stiefvater's writing is enjoyable. The words on each page expertly evoke the deliberately-vague period (1910-ish, because it's the era of the women's suffrage movement), the place (the UK, an island, north), and the magic (killer sea horses). As with the Raven Cycle, I accept that fantastical beings exist in our own world without question, because the writing closes around me and lulls me into believing. This island is a worthy sister to the one in Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island, which is saying something.
The romance. I'm okay that there are no fireworks, and you should be, too. To begin with, The Scorpio Races contains one of the most romantic interactions I've ever read (the Sean-taking-Puck's-pulse moment). And the novel is a bit like a Japanese manga in that you ship the characters hard, even though they barely get to kissing. Let's face it, hesitancy is more satisfying than gushing protestations of love or explicit erotica. In fact, the slow romance is one of the great things about this novel. It means that Puck's conflict and Sean's conflict take center stage. It means they're deep and trusting friends before they get together intimately (which we never get to see, but surmise to be something like what George Holly crassly predicts: "I'll come back next year and you'll have a nest of horses outside your window and Puck Connely in your bed and I'll buy from you instead of Malvern"). Additionally, it suits the characters themselves to have this slow build: they are both excruciatingly reserved and fiercely independent--not the mooning Bella and Edward types.
Does Ms. Stiefvater hold herself to a word count every day? There seems to be a lot of rambling filler that should have been sculpted or removed in subsequent drafts. Or perhaps the author adds ordinary scenes in between climax scenes to try to get the pacing right, and actually damages it. In Chapter 48, for example, Puck comes home after riding wild Corr on the cliff, and Finn has nervously scrubbed the house from top to bottom. We see that Puffin has (against all odds) survived the attack of the capaill near the shed. Finn and Puck fret yet again about whether Puck will get hurt in the race and whether they'll lose the house, and Finn pulls his mattress into her bedroom to sleep, like he did as a young boy. What was the purpose of this chapter? It's almost as if Ms. Stiefvater thinks we need to decompress after the romance and tension of a training scene, and wants us to understand how long Puck and Finn have to live with their anxieties before the race, so she inserts a scene of "troubled domestic life" for good measure. There are a fair number of complaints on goodreads that this book is long, dull, and not enough happens until the race, and this sort of chapter is partly to blame. Ms. Stiefvater enjoys character--and in this book, setting--more than she cares about pacing and plot.
Plot holes. Well, "holes" is a strong word. In this category I also include, "the introduction of unnecessary material that doesn't have any real reason to be there."
--The entire character of George Holly, maybe. He's just there to show us things: that Sean is a talented worker; that Sean is opening up to friendships. He's that guy who tells our main characters they're in love. Ms. Stiefvater keeps looking for things for Holly to do, to justify his existence (hence the oddball, out-of-place romance with Annie).
--Mr. Malvern doesn't blink at Mutt's death. (Puck implies that this is a delayed reaction because the body hasn't been recovered and there's nothing to mourn. But would any father, even a negligent one, put his missing son so quickly out of his mind?)
--What is the point of bringing a capaill uisce to the shed...just to force Finn, Puck, and Gabe to the butcher's house to see what Gabe has been up to? And am I mis-reading, or in chapter 38 does Ms. Stiefvater imply that Gabe and Peg Gratton have been having an affair, and that's the reason Gabe has to leave the island? Gabe is in a relatively intimate position, standing close behind her at the sink, speaking to her in a low voice about "not having the strength..." Did anyone else wonder why that moment was in there?
--Did Sean get the shell? Did we ever actually see it handed from from the horse-witch-lady to him? This was one of those sections where the mystical-Maggie writing that I usually love trod over the line into becoming obfuscating and confusing.
--Dory Maude and Elizabeth try to get George Holly to marry their blind sister, Annie. Huh? This comes from out of the blue. And why do the sisters send Holly off with Puck for breakfast? How does that help their cause? It seems like it's just a chance for Holly to be alone with Puck so he can say the line, "I hope you won't wait for Sean Kendrick to realize he's lonely."
--Tommy Falk is introduced just to kill him off. We know he's one of the young men who plans to move to the mainland, and we see him help Puck and Finn escape from the capaill uisce in the shed. But his biggest scene is in chapter 52 for the dinner with Sean at the Connely house, where we're supposed to remember he's such a dear friend of the family, and then a mere three chapters later he's a goner. To boot, we have no idea why Puck was looking for him on the beach when she found him dead.
Screeching POV changes. This happens pretty frequently in Stiefvater's work. For instance, Chapter 26 starts out in Puck's POV on the cliff, watching Sean ride bareback, and switches to Sean's head, racing the mare against Dove (the mare that jumped unexpectedly into the sea).
Redshirt deaths. When you promise killer horses from the sea, you have to deliver on some gore. But it's hard to kill the characters you love. Heck, Ms. Stiefvater can't even kill the barn cat. So instead she invents peripheral characters we don't really know, kills them, and hopes we'll internalize how dangerous the races are from that. Wah, some stranger named Prince has died. Wah, supposed-dear-friend Tommy Falk has died (and yet even Tommy's father says that his move to the mainland would have been the same as dying for his family, so, whatever, light the pyre).
In sum. Ms. Stiefvater is becoming masterful at character, atmospheric writing, and setting. If she can tighten up her pacing and plot, she'll be a force to be reckoned with.