The Raven Cycle

raven-boysYou guys. YOU GUYS. Last year, Teresa put Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races on my list for our annual Book Swap, and I thought it was great, so I put her Raven Cycle on my list for some-other-time. And then at the end of November (just a couple of weeks ago, geez) I picked up The Raven Boys and absolutely fell into it. There’s no other way of saying it. Plummeted, as if I wasn’t watching where I was going and there was a deep hole lined with strange and beautiful and dark and dangerous and marvelous things. And I didn’t come out until I finished The Raven King, ummm about half an hour ago. Actually I may not be out yet; it’s hard to tell.

You guys. These books are great.

It is, however, quite difficult to describe what they’re about, and doubly-triply-extra hard to do it if I don’t want to offer spoilers. So here’s a brief summary (if I can do it) and then a few thoughts on What Makes These Books So Great, a la Jo Walton.

The first book is about four boys who go to a very elite prep school, Aglionby. Gansey is looking for a dead Welsh king who’s been (improbably) buried in southwestern Virginia. His close friends, the tightly self-sufficient Adam, the cuttingly hostile Ronan, and the smudgy, slouchy Noah, are there to help in this very weird quest. They meet Blue Sargent, the daughter of a psychic, who has been told all her life that if she kisses her true love, he’ll die. So far, it hasn’t come up, and she has absolutely no intention of getting involved with entitled Aglionby boys, so that’s that.

Only, of course, it’s far more complicated: magic, and dreams, and prophecies, and ancient lines of energy; friendships and hateships and courtships and fealty; families and learning what it means to be even partly human. Fighting evil. Dreams become real, and reality revealed as dream. Death. Redemption. Risk. Love, and love, and love.

raven-kingI expected these books to be working with some of the same material as Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence (Welsh mythology, “raven boy,” etc.) They do not. They are not even the tiniest bit derivative of those books, not in tone, setting, ideas, nothing. They are utterly original, even as they feel delightfully familiar because they rest on legends and poems and ideas that have old, beautiful shapes.

One of the things I loved most about these books was their emotional arc. About halfway through The Dream Thieves (the second book), I remember asking myself, “Why are these guys all so hard on each other?” and then immediately knowing the answer: it’s because they are so hard on themselves. These books are partly dedicated to Stiefvater’s exploration of the proposition that if you hate yourself, loving other people is too vulnerable, too fraught. You can’t care for and honor other people’s frailties and flaws if you loathe your own problems; it will tip you off balance and send you into the void. Each of the raven boys — Gansey, Ronan, Adam, Noah — has a reason to hate himself, a reason to be spinning off-balance. Part of the joy of the book is watching those tense, wary relationships ease as each person finds solid ground under his feet, reason to know he’s worth while, and therefore reason to love and care for the others in a far deeper way. (And Blue, my beloved Blue, never had reason to hate herself, and she helps the others learn to love themselves, almost as if her ability to amplify psychic ability grounds them. Another reason I love her.)

These books are often very dark and intense and full of pain. They don’t shy away from death, either. But death, in these novels, is not the final problem; you can fight death. Unmaking, interestingly, is the final evil, the opposite of creation and dreaming and love. It’s made up of ambition, greed, hatred, violence, and contempt. I find this a revealing message coming from an author who also draws and makes music — a maker, in every sense of the word.

The less-central characters in this book are so well-drawn: the psychic women in Blue’s house, the hit man who enters their lives (I would like to see a television series following him), JESSE DITTLEY, the various seekers after magical artifacts, Chainsaw, the characters’ families. Each feels completely created, a whole person with a backstory and a future you’d like to find out more about. It’s no surprise that Stiefvater is writing about dreams that become real.

I thought these books were absolutely marvelous. I couldn’t put them down. I am dying to talk to someone about them, and hear opinions and get some various matters cleared up. So: SPOILERS ALLOWED IN THE COMMENTS! Stay away if that bothers you! But read them — this would be perfect winter break reading — they are terrific. Highly recommended for pure pleasure reading.

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18 Responses to The Raven Cycle

  1. Care says:

    I have been wanting to read these and now I am tempted to buy them a lock myself into a reading cave and devour them in one sitting. Just might, I see reading binges in my immediate future…

    • Jenny says:

      These books are wonderful to binge on! The writing is very good, and they’re just addictive in their quality — intense, but also frequently funny, and so original. I just loved reading them all so close together.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I loved these too, but I wished they hadn’t tried to fight death in the last one.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha, I was thinking of you! These are books where necromancy pays! More than once! There’s loads of speaking to the dead, and at least, what, two actual resurrections, and it’s painful but it more or less works out. What makes you wish they hadn’t fought it? Not enough sacrifice for you? Too easy an out?

  3. Ocean Bream says:

    Wow, I read these and your description of them is ON POINT. I too found it tremendously hard to describe them properly. And my goodness the world Maggie Steifvater opened up within them was just so phenomenal and beautiful, her characters were so rich and complete. Her descriptions so vivid and poignant. I loved it!

    • Jenny says:

      I agree with everything you said! Some of her descriptions were just glorious. Another thing I loved about them was the setting — I grew up in northern Virginia and then spent time in other parts of Virginia for my higher education, and Stiefvater gets everything exactly right.

  4. Elle says:

    I’ve heard so many good things about these books, and The Scorpio Races!

  5. Anne Simonot says:

    I LOVED The Scorpio Races and thought she was an amazing writer. I must start these soon. Yours is not the first rave review I’ve read.

  6. Kristen M. says:

    I also binged this series this year and fell head over heels in love with everyone and everything about it! I wanted to buy the whole set for my sister this year but will wait for next year when they are all in paperback. I’ve actually already requested the first one again on audio from the library because I miss the characters and world so much. We’re so lucky that Stiefvater is starting to write a Ronan series right now!

    • Jenny says:

      My sister got The Scorpio Races for Christmas last year and she’s getting The Raven Boys this year! I think I might be listening to these on audio in the new year. I’m with you, Kristen. :)

  7. I don’t do much YA fiction anymore, but I’ll ask my librarian if any of our students are reading these. We’re always on the lookout for a good new series.

  8. I clapped my hands seeing that you had read these, Proper Jenny! It’s such a lovely series, and I grew so tremendously fond of each of the characters. Who was your favorite? Was your favorite Adam? Adam is my favorite because I consider that he is eerily similar to me in a way that I rarely encounter in literature, but very worryingly, some of my most favorite people (including my podcast partner AND MY MOTHER) who claim to also be very fond of me are kind of anti-Adam. TROUBLING.

    Also, oh, are you excited for the trilogy that’s just about Ronan? Or nah? And also are you upset that they didn’t remain sad about Noah like AT ALL after he dissipated? Cause I was pretty annoyed about that frankly.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not anti-Adam. I love Adam because I deeply get where he’s coming from — he’s very similar to my husband — and he learns and grows through the series. No, though, my favorite far and away was Blue, narrowly followed by The Gray Man. And then Ronan, and then Maura, and then JESSE DITTLEY. I loved all of them! All, all, all.

      I AM EXCITED FOR THE SERIES ABOUT RONAN. I loved Ronan, and I loved him more and more as the series went on. I can’t wait to see what happens!

      Okay, so, that Noah thing? What exactly happened? Did he… die? Again? Did he sacrifice himself? Was he part of the sacrifice that helped resurrect Gansey? Or was that only Cabeswater? Was it just circular time? And YES I was irritated that they didn’t even notice he went apparently. I mean, he was their friend, even if he got a little eye-scratchy toward the end. Bury a person once and it’s over, I guess.

      Okay, here’s a question. Why is Henry? Why does he exist in the series?

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