Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

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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
Angieville
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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23 comments »

  1. I agree with you spot-on, Heidi – this was no Scorpio Races. While I definitely enjoyed this novel and couldn’t help but love it for its characters, I do think it had a plethora of flaws, from Glendower’s mystery to the strange romance dynamics. I’m certainly excited for the sequel though and am glad that, despite its flaws, you still enjoyed this one. Fantastic review, dear! :)
    Keertana @ Ivy Book Bindings recently posted..Series Review: FBI/US Attorney Romance Series by Julie JamesMy Profile

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Keertana! I am excited for the next book, and did enjoy this one overall. I think maybe if I hadn’t set it aside to start my read along that I would have blown through it without as much time to think, and would have come out happier. I’ll make sure to do that with the next one!

  2. elena says:

    I am guilty of the cliffhanger thing! You’re right, it does tie it up pretty nicely but I guess I just considered anything with a ~shock value a cliffhanger which is not how a cliffhanger actually works. Eek, I hope there isn’t the soap opera love triangles in the second because I like where the relationships are now. This book actually took me awhile to get into, it was quite slow and I was confused at certain parts. Still, I did enjoy this book! Thanks for the insightful & thoughtful review. :)
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    • Heidi says:

      Hehe, that’s fair, Elena. I think nothing at the end surprised me, so I was a little confused, but I am still excited for the sequel! I have my fingers crossed that maybe Stiefvater will go a different direction than it looks like she’s going with the relationships, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

  3. Angie says:

    Hm, you enjoyed it but it didn’t hold your attention. I’m sorry it didn’t live up to expectations, Heidi. I hate that feeling. I always feel bad when people expect an author’s next book to be the same as/live up to the glory of the previous one. I’m guilty of it, too, I’m sure. But man, that’s gotta be rough.

    I’m not sure I’d say everyone who spoke of a cliffhanger was wrong per se. In my mind, a cliffhanger doesn’t have to be cut off literally mid-action. It can also leave the audience in suspense of what will happen. Which I think she did/they are in TRB.

    I also agree with Elena on the relationships aspect of things. Tired love triangle didn’t even cross my mind. But to each her own, to be sure. I think I am in possession of the Stiefvater gene, and so my opinion might be necessarily skewed. ;)
    Angie recently posted..Moonshifted by Cassie AlexanderMy Profile

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, I think I made a mistake in setting it aside to start a read along, and then it just seemed so lackluster when I returned to it. Maybe if I’d read this one at a better time I would have been less disappointed? Quite possibly–it may actually warrant a reread because of that.

      That’s fair on the cliffhanger, in my mind a cliffhanger does literally have to be cut off mid-action–but I can certainly understand everyone’s suspense for the next one!

      I didn’t feel like there was the love triangle element in this book, but I feel like it’s coming down the road like a mac truck and I’m just dreading it. Hopefully she doesn’t go there, but I’m thinking she will, it’s the only way all of the premonitions line up.

  4. Ah, I think your review is very fair. I agree with many of the points you made about the book’s flaws (and a certain amount of predictability, too), though I was swept away enough by the idea of the story to enjoy this more than you did.

    It’s so funny to see the wildly varied reactions to Maggie’s work–I’ve found that with the exception of readers who like every book of hers, it’s impossible to predict who will like what! I know you and Keertana both disliked SHIVER, while it is one of my favorite books of all time. And you both loved SCORPIO RACES (as did the rest of the world), whereas I wasn’t a huge fan, hah.

    Oh well. I’m glad it intrigued you enough to read the next installment, at least. And kudos to the author for trying new and unusual stories.

    • Heidi says:

      Hehe, I was really swept away with the first 3/4 of the book, Wendy! Then I set it aside to read Little House books and just had SUCH a hard time coming back to it. I’m thinking maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for it when I read it, and that maybe I’d have liked it more under other circumstances.

      But yes, there are so many varied reactions to her books, it’s so hard to judge what and how much people will like her work! I liked Shiver, but didn’t love it–I was unable to get past the first couple of chapters in Linger. Honestly I didn’t like this one much more than Shiver, but I have hopes for the next book.

  5. I’m pretty sure you’re not the only one of my friends to describe this book as one you’re absorbed in while reading, but not eager to pick up again later, which is interesting to me. (Something similar happened for me while I was reading The Magicians, which I enjoyed much more than many of my friends, but still had trouble committing to.)

    On a completely tangential note, I love your frustration with people misapplying the idea of a cliffhanger, and I think you’d enjoy Emily Nussbaum’s essay about cliffhangers & television: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/television/2012/07/30/120730crte_television_nussbaum?currentPage=all

    (Spoilers for some shows, of course, but you may or may no care about that.)
    AVH @ Verity Books recently posted..Coming Soon!My Profile

    • Heidi says:

      Oooh, glad to hear I’m not the only one who was pretty stop and start on this one.

      Thanks for the essay! I do get a bit Ranty Pants sometimes, but I do think the word means a break in climax which is not how it is being used. I found that essay really interesting–love reading the history of the cliffhanger and how it is used both brilliantly and cheaply.

  6. Pretty much my sentiments exactly! Great review!

    Sandy @ Somewhere Only We Know
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    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Sandy! I saw that you were my ONLY Goodreads friend who also rated this as low as 3 stars. Glad to know I’m not alone. :)

  7. Jasmine Rose says:

    Sometimes I think people think it’s a cliffhanger as long as there isn’t a “The End” at the end. Just because all the loose end aren’t tied up doesn’t mean it’s a cliffhanger. To me, a cliffhanger is like waiting to find out if someone is really dead or waiting for a really important decision to be made.
    I’m a little nervous about reading The Raven Boys after your review. I don’t really do paranormal and ghosts definitely fall under that category and since you’re not raving I think I’ll have to push it down the TBR.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, that’s my view of a cliffhanger as well.

      I’m sorry to make you more hesitant about this one! I honestly don’t know what my problem was, everyone else seems to love it so much. It was good, it just wasn’t rave worthy for me. *shrug* I do hope that you fair better.

  8. VeganYANerds says:

    Wonderful review, Heids! Maggie is really so good at characters :)

    And I agree, the ending was not a cliffhanger AT ALL but I have so many questions (Blue likes Adam but is she also crushing on Gansey? And what did Adam do in the forest?) I guess I’ll have to wait and find out!
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    • Heidi says:

      Yes, but I like that there’s still a lot of questions. =)

      There are all sorts of other things that I’m curious about as well! Like Blue’s dad.

  9. Katy Moran says:

    I’m glad it wasn’t just me who wasn’t convinced about The Raven Boys – I don’t think for a moment that the Welsh would have sent Owen Glendower’s body across the Atlantic! I do think the ending could be described as a cliffhanger, in that so many threads of action are left untied, but to be honest my overriding impression was that I’d just read a partially edited manuscript! She is an amazing writer and I’m still very much looking forward to the Scorpio Races, though.

    • Heidi says:

      Oh thank you! Glad I’m not alone here either…I just…can’t swallow the Glendower plot (and I always feel silly saying “this is unrealistic” about aspects in books that are full of magic, but you know what I mean). I do hope you read The Scorpio Races soon! It’s a beautiful book. I did like The Raven Boys, it was just disappointing to me in places.

  10. Just discovering this review, Heidi! Giving some love to older reviews, that’s me:)

    I really enjoyed this book, but it did take me quite a while to warm to it. It definitely wasn’t total love at first line like THE SCORPIO RACES was. But I chalk some of that up to the fact that it is the first of a four book series and the groundwork is being laid. I loved Blue and adored her eccentric matriarchal clan (esp. Calla!), but I didn’t connect with Gansey like I hoped. He grew on me over the course of the book however. Fave character: RONAN. The bad boy is my fave, what a SHOCKER. I am so predictable.

    And I did love the surprises in the book. The big one in the middle made me gasp out loud because I so didn’t see it coming (even with all the hints Steifvater dropped during the book) and you’re right about the ending. It isn’t a cliffie but it was very SHOCKING. At least to me. And the perfect set up for what’s coming.

    But I totally get what you are saying about the vagueness of the Glendower story. And the events that took place at Cabeswater were a little hard for me to grasp as well.

    I enjoyed reading this review, Heidi! Hoping Bk#2 will tighten things up:)
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    • Heidi says:

      Thanks for the love, Heahter! <3

      My favorite was Adam, of course, and I too absolutely adore Blue’s clan.

      The ending didn’t shock me at all…(not the very last line, if that’s what you’re referring to), I knew that already from things that had been stated when it happened, so I was honestly confused if it was supposed to be shocking.

      I hope book 2 will tighten things up too. I DON’T LIKE that this was just all about setting up the bigger story with a makeshift plot for the moment to get us knowing our characters. I know that’s the point of first books, but I feel like she could have done better (like at The Diviners for example).

  11. I did really enjoy Carnival of Souls — so I think I’d dig The Raven Boys PLUS I still have not yet read The Scorpio Races, so I think that my expectations won’t be wild. I don’t know, I guess I am still really optimistic for The Raven Boys given all the gushy reviews ha ha.
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