Review: The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater

>>Published: September 2012

A familiar shape stood out from the rest of the doodles. Three intersecting lines: a long, beaked triangle. It was the same shape Neeve had drawn in the churchyard dust. The same shape her mother had drawn in the steamed shower door.

Blue flattened the page to get a better look. This section was on ley lines: “mystical energy roads that connect spiritual places.” Throughout the journal, the writer had doodled the three lines again and again, along with a sickly-looking Stonehenge, strangely elongated horses, and a labelled sketch of a burial mound. There was no explanation of the symbol.

It couldn’t be a coincidence.

There was no way this journal could possibly belong to that presidential raven boy. Someone must’ve given it to him.

Maybe, she thought, it’s Adam’s.

He gave her the same sensation as the journal did: the sense of magic, of possibility, of anxious danger. That same feeling as when Neeve had said that a spirit touched her hair.

Blue thought, I wish you had been Gansey. But as soon as she thought it, she knew it wasn’t true. Because whoever Gansey was, he didn’t have long to live.

***

Blue Sargent is normal. Sort of. I mean, she’s got a fated lover she might or might not be doomed to kill with a kiss, and she herself is the equivalent of a walking, talking, magical amplifier—a supercharger for mystical elements and magical individuals. However, in a family of more-than-slightly off-kilter clairvoyants, Blue’s idiosyncrasies are decidedly simple. The Raven Boys, the first of a new YA quartet, follows the late-teens Blue as she juggles love and her fear of love, destiny and its many pitfalls, and being on the margins of normal in a family that’s anything but.

Running parallel to Blue is Gansey—Richard Gansey III—who is an interesting mix of wealthy, prep school stereotypes and altruistic, spiritual intentions. Gansey and his friends—Ronan, Adam, and Noah—are on an otherworldly treasure hunt for Glendower, a Welsh spirit who may or may not rest somewhere on the ley lines that cross the area. When early on Blue is given a glimpse of Gansey and the tragic fate destined for him, possibly by her own hands, she is pulled into the boys’ inner circle, helping them on their quest for Glendower while also working to understand the meaning behind the potentially disastrous destiny predicted for both her and Gansey. Along the way, the group will unearth a murder mystery none of them could have expected, one whose solution will forever change their group’s dynamic.

Upon first glance, The Raven Boys looks like little more than another entry into the doomed-fated-lovers-and-weird-spiritual-shit category that, in recent years, has come to dominate if not define young adult literature. Holding to that assumption, however, would be a mistake. Maggie Stiefvater’s newest has a lot more going for it than its jacket copy would have you believe. Least of all is that Blue, billed as the main character, is of less interest and focus than the relationship between Gansey, Ronan, and Adam. This trio and their shared history is the core around which everything else in the book seems to spin. Blue and her family, while intriguing, offer a greater sense of world and place than they do of character. That’s not to say that they’re bad or woefully underdeveloped, only that Stiefvater seems to have a greater sense of the raven boys than she does the psychics and Blue.

On that note, I do have some complaints. I take that back—I have one complaint with several arms to it. This is the first of a quartet, and it feels that way. What I mean is that there is a level of serialization to The Raven Boys that allows for only partial closure at the end of this entry. Of course to some degree that is expected, but in this case I feel as if a few too many things were left hanging for the inevitable next instalment—mysteries left unresolved, at least one intriguing side character vanishes without a trace while another’s existence is only hinted at. I’m confident there will be payoffs for these mysteries in the entries still to come, but the many minor cliffhangers in this first book of the series add up to an unfortunately abrupt ending.

To flip things back into the positive, The Raven Boys has a tone I greatly appreciate and did not at all expect. Namely, that it feels like a lost ’80s adventure flick/teenage drama. The characters in The Raven Boys draw from The Breakfast Club: Ronan is John Bender, Blue is Allison Reynolds, Adam is Brian Johnson, and Gansey, oddly enough, fills both the Andrew Clark and Claire Standish roles (a little bit the popular one, a little bit the princess). And the school’s villainous Whelks who seeks the same treasure as Gansey? He’s Richard Vernon, naturally. And on the adventure side of things, it has a strong The Goonies vibe running through the characters, how they interact with (and rip on) one another, and in their search for their own person One-Eyed Willy, Glendower.

All told, there’s a lot to like in The Raven Boys. It has a strong set of realistic-feeling characters who aren’t afraid to curse one another out when the situation calls for it. That I’m frustrated in the least by what it doesn’t wrap up is indicative of the narrative’s hooks—I was left wanting more, not less. In as crowded a sandbox as The Raven Boys is playing in, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself. Recommended, providing loose threads aren’t some sort of literary Achilles Heel for you.

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