You 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.
I 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.