Note: This is a fairly spoiler-free review, but it’s not entirely devoid of spoilers, because there’s one bit of characterization I wanted to talk about that isn’t revealed until the second book. You’ve been warned.
When I was in high school, back in the late 90’s, I fell in with a group of boys who changed my life for the better in ways I was completely oblivious to at the time. They were all friends of the boy I spent all of those years obsessed with in the way of teenaged first love. I don’t remember that we used the word ‘geek’ to describe what we were, but that was us. We played role playing games, we read and wrote science fiction and fantasy stories, we discussed philosophy, we spent hours endlessly dissecting and solving the world’s problems. Because of those boys, I began exploring Paganism, though that was something of a fraught process, since I didn’t have many resources and only the expertise of people my own age who, all of us being teenagers, thought they were wise beyond their years. Needless to say, this was not an optimal learning environment.
We all moved on in due course. That boy and I drifted apart. I still have those memories, though, which is why I’m drawn to young adult fiction. I want to remember those intense feelings, the way that life seemed like an exciting adventure and I was confident and less afraid because I had my people with me. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work; I have no desire to read about snooty girls and their relationships with their frenemies, because even if I believed that was as common an occurrence as books would have you think, the worldviewthat encourages that sort of thinking is way too grim for me.
Paranormal YA rarely works for me, either. I couldn’t enjoy the fantasy of Bella finding her Edward because that particular sparkly vampire was creepy as hell and downright abusive. Plus it bothered me that Bella had no friends outside of him. But that’s another post.
Initially, I dismissed Maggie Stiefvater as yet another YA author cashing in on the paranormal romance YA craze. Sure, her books garnered rave reviews, but all of them seemed to promise all the things I hated: overwrought conflict, stupid love triangles, and bland heroines. I probably would have continued dismissing what turned out to be a huge treat if it hadn’t been for this review of The Raven Boys. Renay doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would go in for excessive schmoop and silly love triangle nonsense. Her review was so passionate and articulate that I knew I had to meet these characters for myself.
Blue has always known her future. If she kisses her true love, he will die. Ergo, the sensible thing to do is not to get involved with anyone, little say the Raven Boys, the sons of the wealthy and elite who attend Aglionby Academy, a prestigious private school in Blue’s hometown of Henrietta, Virginia. So far that’s going well for her, until she accompanies her aunt, who is psychic like the rest of Blue’s family, to perform a ritual on St. Mark’s Eve. Blue’s not psychic herself, but she can amplify a psychic’s abilities. As Blue’s aunt catalogues the spirits of the dead passing during their vigil, Blue hears a voice, and learns a name. The voice belongs to a boy called Gansey, who is one of those aforementioned Aglionby boys. Blue’s aunt informs her that the only way she’d have heard that voice is if she killed him.
A few days later, Gansey shows up at Blue’s home hoping for a psychic reading. It turns out he is obsessed with finding the remains of a Welsh king who is believed to be buried somewhere near Henrietta. He’s brought his friends, scholarship student Adam, brittle Ronan, and taciturn Noah, and Blue soon finds that her life is inextricably tied to the raven boys, all of whom have secrets.
I knew I was going to love The Raven Boys right away. I was introduced to a whole plethora of characters, and Stiefvater expected me to keep up with them. I got the sense that Blue, Gansey and the rest had had full and complete lives before I showed up to read their book, and would go on having their own lives long after I turned the last pages. I loved that Blue’s family was eccentric, but not altogether useless. I felt I’d stepped into an early Charles de Lintnovel, where the magic was slightly sinister but hidden just beneath the surface.
I also got that sense of nostalgia I love when reading a good YA. Granted, none of the boys I remember from my own high school days were rich, and none of us had to deal with all the stuff that gets thrown at the Aglionby boys, but the chemistry between all of them felt authentic and genuine. It was also fantastic to read about a girl’s relationship with boys that was mostly platonic. (Oh, there is a love triangle here, but it’s not framed as why-can’t-she-just-make-up-her-mind? It’s a complicating factor, and I don’t know how it will be resolved, but there are other, more interesting things going on than the romance.)
The Raven Boys starts off relatively slowly, introducing all the characters and letting the reader get to know them. The writing is lovely, and Stiefvater avoids the trap of becoming too much of an info- dump. I had become attached to Blue and her boys, so when one of the first major plot twists happened,about two thirds through the book,causing the plot to shift abruptly into high gear, I was on the edge of my seat. As with most opening volumes of series, the book ends with a lot more questions than answers. It’s not a true cliffhanger, or at least it didn’t feel like a “Gotcha. You need the next book right now!” sort of ending. Nonetheless, I had gotten so wrapped up in the lives of Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah that I didn’t want to let them go, so of course, I bought the next book. The Dream Thieves picks up a few weeks after The Raven Boys ends, and the readers left to keep up with the plot on her own. This time, the story centers around Ronan, who was my least favorite of the boys. He’s the bad boy, the one who has scars that are close to the surface. I normally don’t enjoy those types of heroes, either in adult romance or in YA, because the expectation usually is that once you introduce a bad boy, there’s got to be a love interest who comes along to tame and reform him. In this way, Stiefvater subverts those tropes because that doesn’t actually happen, and it’s a credit to her writing that I fell hard for Ronan despite him embodying a character type I typically hate.
Ronan has the ability to manifest things from his dreams into the waking world. Needless to say, there are people who find that ability useful, people whose intentions are not honorable.
This second volume of the Raven Cycle is much darker than its predecessor. All of the characters have to make difficult choices. All of them have to face the darkest parts of themselves. Yet again, the end brings closure of a sort, but there are still puzzles to be solved. (What is the Grey Man’s role in the larger story? Where did all the people who disappear go?) I’m disappointed that I have to wait a whole other year to find out.
The romance is still an important subplot, but it’s not the important subplot. I love that Stiefvater isn’t teasing us with different possibilities for shipping–the pairing is fairly obvious and seems inevitable–but it’s all dark. After all, how are Blue and Gansey going to have any kind of relationship if when she kisses him, he’ll die?
And can I just say… Gansey is quite swoon worthy. Angie makes a great case in her review for the awesome brokenness that is Adam, but Gansey had my heart from the first. He’s a geek, he’s fascinated with the occult, he has a lot of love, and he tries so hard to fix people, which is convincingly presented in the text as a significant character flaw.
Speaking of romance (and here’s where I get a little spoilery, so look away now and come back in a paragraph) I thought Ronan being gay was handled well. It’s not overt, but the signs are all there. It’s not a very important element to the overall plot, but it explains a lot. I want Ronan to meet a nice boy who is going to return his feelings without necessarily needing to fix him and polish his rough edges. Or I want a polyamorous relationship between all of the characters. Sadly,the latter is probably not in the offing.
I listened to both of these books on audio. The first was through the NationalLibrary Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped audiobook program. The narrator they picked was a cheerful, pleasant-voiced woman of the sort who is often asked to narrate YA books. I expected a similar experience when I got to The Dream Thieves, and was surprised when I bought the commercial version and ran across Will Patton. He has a raspy, three-packs-a-day voice, and did an excellent job bringing the darker aspects of the story to the fore. I’m not sure I’d have come to like Ronan quite so much if it wasn’t for the way Patton read him. But they were totally different reading experiences and I enjoyed them both in different ways.
There’s so much more I want to say about this series. I still find myself thinking about it weeks later–and it’s taken a long time to finish this review. Ultimately, though, the only thing I have to say is that if you like well-constructed, character-driven fantasy and YA, you should read it immediately.
Final Grade for both: An A for The Raven Boys and a B+ for The Dream Thieves.