The Raven Boys: A challenging urban fantasy with a dash of everything

Reposting to include Rebecca’s new review.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater fantasy book reviewsThe Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue is the only non-psychic in a large extended family of psychics in Henrietta, Virginia. Her only unusual ability is that her presence amplifies the psychic powers of others around her, but she herself cannot use these abilities. So it’s a shock when, while sitting vigil in a graveyard with her aunt Neeve, Blue sees the spirit of a boy about her age who is destined to die in the next year. She learns that there are only two possible reasons she was able to see him: either he’s her true love, or she’s going to kill him.

The Raven Boys follows two groups of characters whose stories weave together: Blue and her eccentric family, and a clique of four boys from the posh Aglionby Academy, whose students are nicknamed “raven boys” for the emblem on their uniforms. The leader of this clique is Gansey, the boy whose fetch Blue saw in the cemetery; he is searching for the resting place of Owain Glendower, whom he thinks was brought to the New World and buried on a ley line near Henrietta. His friends are Ronan, who is angry and bitter and blowing off school; Adam, who is poor and industrious and desperate not to accept any pity from Gansey; and Noah, who is… mysterious. One thing they have in common is father issues: each boy in his own way is trying not to inherit his father’s flaws. (Come to think of it, Blue has father issues too, never having known her father.)

This is my fifth Maggie Stiefvater book so, in many ways, I knew what to expect. I knew to expect beautiful, dreamy prose — it’s here in spades, and I loved it. I also had an inkling that the plot would simmer slowly for most of the book, developing character and teasing with hints of mystery while moving at a leisurely pace. This happens here too, and it’s effective, with the characters slowly revealed layer by layer until you feel like you know them intimately.

What surprised me was the extent to which The Raven Boys does not stand alone. I knew THE RAVEN CYCLE was planned as a series, but my experience with Lament and Shiver, both of which were also first books in a larger story, led me to hope for more resolution than we get here. So much is left unresolved at the end, and it’s a little disappointing. We do, however, get a few spine-tingling twists along the way, and we are left wanting to explore the Glendower mystery further.

I’ll leave you with my favorite passage of the book, one that had me grinning from ear to ear, and wanting simultaneously to read Gansey’s journal and to find some topic to become obsessed with and keep my own awesome journal about:

…she flipped the journal back open. Now she had time to marvel at the sheer density of it. Even if the content hadn’t immediately caught her, the feel of the thing would have. There were so many of the clippings she’d noticed before that the journal wouldn’t stay book-shaped unless tied shut with leather wrappings. Pages and pages were devoted to these ripped and scissored excerpts, and there was an undeniable tactile pleasure to browsing. Blue ran her fingers over the varied surfaces. Creamy, thick artist paper with a slender, elegant font. Thin, browning paper with spidery serif. Slick, utilitarian white stock with an artless modern type. Ragged-edged newspaper in a brittle shade of yellow…. More than anything, the journal wanted. It wanted more than it could hold, more than words could describe, more than diagrams could illustrate. Longing burst from the pages, in every frantic line and every hectic sketch and every dark-printed definition. There was something pained and melancholy about it.

~Kelly Lasiter


The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater fantasy book reviewsIt’s hard to write a review of Maggie Stiefvater‘s THE RAVEN CYCLE, as its somewhat straightforward YA urban fantasy plot (complete with psychics, missing kings, love triangles, secret powers and so on) is told with prose so unique that it becomes unlike anything you’ve read before. To be honest, this isn’t entirely a good thing, as often Stiefvater’s writing is exhausting in its need to be cuttingly witty, all of the time — but it certainly makes for a memorable reading experience.

The first book in the four-part series is called The Raven Boys (2012), after the students of Aglionby, an all-boys private school in Henrietta, Virginia. They’re largely avoided by Blue Sargent, a teenage girl living in a house full of clairvoyants, whose particular gift is amplifying the gifts of others. She has no gifts of her own, and for as long as she can remember her life has been overshadowed by a strange prediction: that she will kill her true love.

As she does every year, Blue accompanies one of the household psychics to the churchyard on St Mark’s Eve, where the spirits of those destined to die in the coming year can be seen walking in procession. The psychics collect the names in order to pass them on to those who would like fair warning of their inevitable demise, though Blue herself never sees them — until now.

This time, an Aglionby student emerges from the dark and speaks to her, identifying himself only as Gansey before disappearing. Little does Blue know that she and Gansey will soon cross paths in the real world, and that she’ll get caught up in his quest to find the resting place of Welsh King Owen Glendower. It’s a search that already encompasses three other Raven Boys: Adam Parrish, a scholarship student from an abusive home; Ronan Lynch, a fierce soul with a fraught relationship with his brothers; and Noah Czerny, the quiet one with a mysterious background.

Yes, everyone has a quirky name, and yes, most (if not all) of the dialogue is witty banter. Stiefvater is also content to take her time when it comes to establishing the characters and their circumstances; to get a sense of her pacing, considering that the phrase “something had begun” occurs just past the halfway point of the entire book.

But clearly the books have struck a chord with a lot of readers — I tracked them down after a great deal of fan art started appearing on my Tumblr dashboard. It’s high on atmosphere, the characters are compelling, and once you find a way to navigate the prose, there are plenty of interesting twists and developments in the plot itself. As is the case with most YA novels, the juiciest revelations are left unresolved, to be picked up in subsequent books, but in the meantime there are some interesting turns of phrase, plenty of insight into human nature, and a rich backdrop of Virginian mountain ranges.

~Rebecca Fisher

Published in 2012. Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue never sees them–until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks to her. His name is Gansey, 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 is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul whose emotions range from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher 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 doesn’t believe in true love, and never thought this would be a problem. But as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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2 comments

  1. That quote alone hooked me. I am going to have to go back and look up the earlier books. Great review, Kelly!

    • The Raven Boys is the start of its series (hope that wasn’t confusing) but it’s definitely worth reading Lament and its sequel Ballad, and Shiver is also good and can stand alone. I drifted off from the wolf series some, and didn’t read the last book. But I just love her prose.

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