Book Review: The Raven Boys

Book Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys, book 1 in the new series The Raven Cycle, is the recent release by Maggie Stiefvater, highly praised author of The Scorpio Races and the best-selling series The Wolves of Mercy Falls. At least one unanswered question arises from reading this book: What exactly is a cycle? Is it different from a trilogy or a series? If there are two books in the cycle, would it be a bicycle? Inquiring minds want to know.

I’m a bit stumped by how to review this book, so I’ll just be blunt. It’s not good. I don’t even know where to begin enumerating all the many problems contained within its 408 pages.

Let’s start with the book’s focus — or lack of one. The dustjacket and promotional materials seem to cast Blue Sargent as the main character. Blue is certainly a main character, but there are a few others as well, none of whom exactly clamor for center stage. So, Blue — Blue is the 17-year-old daughter of a psychic who lives in a house full of female psychics. There’s a definite crunchy-granola-earth mother vibe going on there. Blue is not psychic herself, but she acts as a sort of amplifier — when she’s in contact with a psychic or a spirit, all powers are magnified, and the communication between mundane and spirit is clearer and louder. Blue has been told all her life that she’ll kill her true love with her first kiss (cheerful, right?), so she decided early on that there will be no kissing in her life. Easier said than done when you’re seventeen and suddenly have lots of very close, very attractive male friends.

Then there are the boys — the raven boys — who attend the ultra-exclusive Aglionby Academy, a prep school haven for the sons of the extremely, obscenely rich. As a rule, they are privileged, pampered, rude to locals, and self-absorbed. Blue crosses paths with the close-knit group formed by best friends Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah when they come to her mother for a reading. The boys, we discover early on, are engaged in a quest, spear-headed by Gansey but with the involvement of all, to track the ley lines that run through their small Virginia town. Ley lines are focal lines of magical energy, and Gansey’s quest (which apparently he’s been pursuing all over the globe for the last several years, despite the fact that he’s only 17 years old) is to wake up the local ley line as a means of finding Glendower, an ancient king of Wales. Glendower’s bones were possibly transported to the New World centuries earlier and reburied somewhere mysterious… but he’s not really dead, just sleeping. Whoever wakes Glendower will be granted a favor, and each of the raven boys has his own reason for wanting – make that needing – this favor.

Does this make any sense? I read the book, and I’m still confused.

All of this business about ley lines and Glendower comes off as mystical mumbo-jumbo. Gansey is supposed to be a brilliant, manically inspired seeker dedicated to a higher cause, but his character never clicked for me. The quest itself is a muddle. Magical stuff happens, none of it very coherent. Blue gets involved, and there’s a lot of running around seeking the energy focal point, but mostly the plot just jumps from action to riddle to more action to… I don’t even know.

Stereotypes abound. Gansey is the spoiled son of a very wealthy family (he’s got a III at the end of his name, so you know he’s pure country club material). He shows his individuality by insisting upon driving a classic Camaro that’s always breaking down rather than taking one of his father’s pristine high-end vehicles. Ronan is the one with an edge, battling with his older brother, cutting classes, sporting a dangerous tattoo and shaved head — the brilliant loose cannon who must be controlled by his friends in order to avoid expulsion. Adam is the poor local kid, literally trailer park trash, who gets a scholarship to Aglionby as part of his own personal quest to escape the poverty and abuse he faces at home, but too proud to accept any help from his wealthy friends who truly love him. And then there’s Noah, whose circumstances are bizarrely told and, to me anyway, entirely unbelievable.

Blue herself is an enigma. We know that she likes to stand out as a weird girl, but we never see her go to school or talk to a single friend. Does she have any friends? Who knows?

I was at least 100 pages into the book before I could keep the boys straight. They all seemed rather indistinguishable, frankly. Blue’s connection with they boys seemed rushed — but then again, that ‘s my overall impression of the entire book. Rushed, messy, not very well thought-out, and with sentence structure issues that just cry out for a good copy editor… perhaps the goal was just to lay the foundation for the rest of the series, but even so, a first book in a series should be stellar.

I’ve actually read all of the author’s previous works, and have found them rather hit-or-miss. I didn’t care for her faerie books (Lament and Ballad), but I enjoyed the wolf books, particularly Shiver, the first in the trilogy. I also liked The Scorpio Races quite a bit, although with reservations about certain plot points. What I liked best about both Shiver and The Scorpio Races was the author’s use of language to create a mood. Shiver is simply permeated by a sense of tragic longing; you can feel the cold air, sense the loneliness of the winter months, feel the main character’s yearning for the wild unknown represented by the wolves. Likewise, in The Scorpio Races, the writing itself evokes life on a small, windswept island with few options and almost no way out; the effect is practically hypnotic, and lends the book much of its strength and grace.

Here in The Raven Boys, that powerful language conveying atmosphere and mood is missing. What’s left is a plot that’s far from compelling. Perhaps The Raven Cycle will improve and the story will start cohering in the subsequent books. I guess I’ll never know; this is one series that I don’t plan to continue reading.

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