Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater


November 21, 2012 by Heidi

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater book coverTitle: The Raven Boys [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Maggie Stiefvater [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: Book one in The Raven Cycle.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Published: September 18th, 2012 by Scholastic Press
Format: Hardcover; 408 pages.
Source: ARC from publisher via BEA.

“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”

It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.

But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

It’s hard not to be sucked in by Maggie Stiefvater’s creative weaving of fantasy, folklore and stunning characterization.  In The Raven Boys, Stiefvater embellishes her story with a depth of understanding in her characters, a certain charm that feels simultaneously fitting and out of place in a YA fantasy infused with portending death.  Despite this, however, I came away disappointed.  Perhaps the hype got to me, or perhaps I was just hoping for something I couldn’t so easily put into a box.

As stated, in The Raven Boys, Stiefvater allows us insight into her characters of the sort we rarely see.  Through an excellent use of multiple perspectives we get to see Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah from a number of angles.  This presents us with the unusual gift of understanding both how a character is and how they seem to others, it keeps us from taking sides, and allows us to love each of them individually as they love one another in friendship.

In particular, Blue and Adam are excellent observers.  Blue recognizes that Gansey often wears a mask, presenting a persona to the world that is very different than who he really is–but she can’t quite get a handle on what might be underneath.  Adam sees Gansey as “an old man in a young body, or a young man in an old man’s life.”  Blue recognizes that Gansey is powerful, where Adam gives power away.  Gansey cares so much for his friends, but feels as if he is nothing to them when they constantly reject his attempts to help.  As these are our three main perspectives, it is our other two raven boys who maintain the largest airs of mystery. Ronan with his sharp edges, where Noah’s are blurred and unsubstantial.  I was hesitant opening The Raven Boys, worried that the shifts would be too much, but pleased to find that they only enhanced the story.  I am hoping for some Ronan point of view in book two!

As in both of the Maggie Stiefvater books I have read previously, in The Raven Boys she proves that she is adept at spinning a unique lore grounded in tradition.  The Raven Boys looks at the folklore of St. Mark’s Eve and a sleeping Welsh raven king who it is said will rise again.  She draws in the power of ley lines, the Nazca lines, the Uffington white horse, and psychics.  She gives us layers of mystery and the unexpected–even when those unexpected moments occur in something completely mundane.

The Raven Boys excels at each of these things, but these are also areas in which problems arose for me as a reader.  I found the explanation for why a Welsh king was asleep in the Virgina countryside to be lacking, and therefore the entire premise to be a little ridiculous.  The pacing was unsteady.  While reading, I found The Raven Boys the perfect popcorn book, one of those that I cannot put down.  However, once put down, it was very difficult to work myself into picking it up again, and it is not a story that will likely stick with me.  I love how regularly Stiefvater surprised me, but just as often I found the plot predictable.  The characters were unexpectedly mature and intelligent–I love that they would contact adults or authorities when necessary, and also recognized decisions that were too big for them in their youth.  But, I strongly dislike some of the relationship dynamics that have been put in place, and am already rolling my eyes at the idea that jealousy will work as the fulcrum of the plot, making The Raven Cycle yet another exercise in tired love triangles and soap opera relationships.

Finally, I’m really confused as to why anyone (let alone hoards of people) could refer to The Raven Boys’ ending as a cliffhanger.  Sorry folks, you keep misusing that word–I do not think it means what you think it means.  Maggie Stiefvater wraps up the current action, and even gives us a run down on what all of the characters are up to at the moment.  It’s a very neat and tidy ending all things considered.  I can understand being desperate for the next installment of a series, but excitement does not a cliffhanger make.

In the end, I found The Raven Boys to be a creative story with a villain that thinks he is sympathetic, but is not, a lore based in history that is captivating, and a barrage of characters that are not pre-packaged, but quite real.  There are excellent friendships, a variety of very present family relationships, and reflections on how economics hold some amount of power over each of us.  However, I also found a book that feels very like the preamble to a story, one that is really only winding up at its end.  This will largely help Maggie Stiefvater avoid the second book slump, but it also caused issues of pacing and failed to hold my attention.

Here’s a charming passage I feel gives some insight into Blue:

It was remarkably easy to disobey Maura.

Maura Sargent had very little experience disciplining children, and Blue had very little experience being disciplined, so there was nothing to stop Blue from going with Adam when he met her in front of the house.  She didn’t even feel guilty yet, because she had no practice in that, either.  Really, the most remarkable thing about the entire situation was how hopeful she felt, against all odds.  She was going against her mother’s wishes, meeting with a boy, meeting with a raven boy.  She should’ve been dreading it.

But it was very difficult to imagine Adam as a raven boy as he greeted her, his hands neatly in his pockets, scented with the dusty odor of mown grass.  His bruise was older and therefore more dreadful looking.

“You look nice,” he said, walking with her down the sidewalk.

She was uncertain if he was being serious.  She wore heavy boots she’d found at the Goodwill (she’d attacked them with embroidery thread and a very sturdy needle) and a dress she’d made a few months earlier, constructed from several different layers of green fabric.  Some of them striped.  Some of them crochet.  Some of them transparent.  It made Adam look quite conservative, like she was abducting him.  They did not, Blue mused with a bit of unease, look anything like a couple.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  I have my definite reservations about this series and where it is going, but I did enjoy The Raven Boys enough that I’ll be back for the next installment.

Recommended for:  Well, pretty much everyone has enjoyed The Raven Boys more than I did, which is great!  There’s a good chance you will as well.  I’d recommend it to readers who enjoyed Carnival of SoulsUnspoken, or the Curse Workers series.  Unfortunately, if you’re looking for more of the Stiefvater you saw in The Scorpio Races, you won’t quite find her here.

Get a second opinion:
The Midnight Garden
Clear Eyes Full Shelves
Ivy Book Bindings
Wrapped Up in Books
The Flyleaf Review
Book Harbinger
The Nocturnal Library

I’ve also reviewed:
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater


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