I've wanted to review The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater since I first read them last summer. Christmas Break was the perfect time to re-read them and take notes. Clearly, since I've read these books twice in the past seven months, I enjoyed them, yet there are some content concerns that I would like to discuss also. I am going to try and make these reviews as non-spoilery as I can, but some things will inevitably slip out, so beware! Also, this review highlights several things that I like about the entire series. The next three book reviews will be shorter and more specific.
The Raven Cycle is about a group of friends who—in their search for the body of a dead Welsh king buried somewhere in Virginia—discover that magic is real and more powerful and dangerous than they ever imagined.
Within the first few chapters of book one, The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater introduces readers to her characters and plot. Blue Sargent comes from a family of female psychics who live together in 300 Fox Way, a big house filled with random doo-dads (including a signed portrait of Steve Martin!) and strong opinions. Every psychic that Blue has ever met has told her the same thing: she will kill her true love if she kisses him. Blue, a sensible sixteen-year-old, figures that not kissing people will be easy. Easy, that is, until her life becomes entwined with Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah. These four boys are "raven boys" who go to Aglionby, the expensive, all-boys boarding school in Henrietta, Virginia. Normally, Blue would scorn raven boys, but these boys are different. Gansey has been collecting information about Glendower, a dead Welsh king, for seven years. Supposedly, instead of dying, Glendower was put to sleep and carried to the United States via ley line; he will grant whoever awakens him a favor. Gansey and his friends each have different reasons for wanting to find Glendower, but they are all loyal to the cause, and they soon adopt Blue into their group.
As far as plots go, The Raven Boys is a bit slow to start, but it's not noticeable. Maggie takes her time to set up her characters and her plot, but she does not bog down the reader with useless details. Besides which, her prose is so beautiful and witty that I could read her shopping lists and not get bored. This book and it's villain are tame compared to the later books in the series, but that's a good thing because Maggie gives her plot, characters, and villains room to grow. She is excellent at pacing her character's growth with plot developments, and her plot developments with action scenes. She also does a LOT of foreshadowing that you don't notice until you re-read the book!
The characters are my favorite part of The Raven Cycle. They are not caricatures. They are not archetypes. They are fully developed with pasts, futures, lives, likes, dislikes, and voices. They are real people, and their characteristics are consistently carried out and developed through all four books. One thing that Maggie does to develop her characters so well is slip in sentences or paragraphs of backstory, which shows that her characters existed before this book came into being. They aren't info-dumpy backstory bits either. Usually, they are quirky stories that make you go "ah, so that's why so-and-so is the way he/she is." She also shows her characters living normal lives. Yes, they are searching for a dead Welsh king and messing about with magic that they don't understand, but they still have to go to the store and buy snacks and they still have to go to school, do homework, and (in the case of Blue and Adam) work several jobs. And they still have to sleep sometimes, too, or (in the case of Gansey and Ronan) face the consequences of insomnia. Just because Maggie's characters are on a quest doesn't mean that they forget about real life.
Blue is sensible and vain. She is the only non-psychic is a houseful of psychics, and so she tries to make herself unique in other ways. She sews and crochets clothes together to make new creations, she wears her short hair up with many clips to contain it, and she prides herself on being an enigma at school. She is also a reader. Maggie doesn't make a huge deal of this, but it's there if you look close enough.
I like Blue a lot. I like that she's sensible. I like that she has purpose. She's not just there to fall in love with someone. She's a great example of a strong female character. (She's also got great style.)
Gansey is at once passionate and polite, depending on which Gansey is needed at the moment. When he is with his friends, he is Gansey-driven-to-insomnia from his intense passion for Welsh history and Glendower. When he is with the world at large, he is Gansey-the-heir-to-millions who can talk to anyone about anything.
It's impossible not to love Gansey. At first, he comes off as a naive pretty boy who doesn't know anything about the real world (this is how Blue first perceives him), but then when you get to know him better, you see that he cares deeply for his friends, family, justice, and Glendower. He also has anxiety, though it may not be noticeable to those who don't have experience with it.
Actually, that's something else that I love about Maggie's characterization... Gansey has anxiety, but that's not what the book is about. Blue (and her mother) cares for the environment, but that's not what the book is about. The Raven Cycle is full of real-world issues, but that's not what the series is about. Maggie doesn't make them a big deal. She treats them as normal, which is a brilliant way to make your characters into real people rather than archetypes or poster children for disease or mental health or abuse. She's inclusive, and she does deal with some hard topics, but it's a subplot instead of the main storyline. Kind of how my asthma is a subplot to my life, rather than the main storyline.
Adam is practical and prideful (and a little like Blue in that way). Adam comes from a trailer park and an abusive home rather than from money, like Gansey and Ronan. To pay for his tuition at Aglionby, he works three jobs. And he refuses help from his friends. He insists on doing everything by himself. He doesn't want to owe anybody anything—he doesn't want to be owned by anyone (which is probably a result of being abused his whole life).
Adam's story arc is heartbreaking and hard to read about, but he is also the character who has the most growth in the series. It's interesting to watch his interactions with each of the other characters. You learn to care deeply for Adam in this book.
Ronan is the most immature of all of the characters, at least in book one. He is most what you'd imagine a teenage boy to be. In his grief over the death of his father, he has become an explosion of anger, swearing, crazy stunts, and unhappiness. Glimpses of pre-father's-death Ronan emerge, though, like in his care of Chainsaw (his pet raven) and his fierce loyalty to those he cares about.
In spite of his foul language, Ronan is one of my favorite characters because of his development and because of a special ability that he possesses. There are many more interesting things about Ronan. For example, the language he understands best is action. He's not great at expressing his thoughts or feelings through words (unless they're swear words), but you'll definitely know how Ronan is feeling through his actions.
Noah is the quietest and most awkward member of Gansey's friend group. Nevertheless, he is vitally important to the plot.
Even though Noah is easily looked over, he is one of my favorite characters. He's rather pitiful, and he's as courageous as the lion from The Wizard of Oz, but he's a good friend and his dog-like affection for Blue is adorable.
Blue's family are also important in the story, which is wonderful since so many YA books feature missing parents. Indeed, none of the boys have present (Gansey), loving (Adam), or alive (Ronan) parents, but the women of 300 Fox Way adopt the boys and give them advice as mothers (and psychics) are wont to do. Blue has never met her father, but her mother Maura is an integral secondary character. Additionally, Maura's two best friends Calla and Persephone are important, as are Blue's half-aunt, Neeve; cousin, Orla; and aunt, Jimi. Despite being secondary characters, Maggie has developed each of the women at 300 Fox Way into real people, too. Well-done secondary characters are my favorite, and The Raven Cycle is full of them.
Setting and Such Things
So, Maggie Stiefvater makes her setting INTO A LITERAL CHARACTER. Like, the setting is alive. Cabeswater is a magical forest that lives and responds to the characters' thoughts. How cool is that? There are several other (non-living settings)...
-Quirky and female-dominated 300 Fox Way.
-Henrietta, Virginia, where the characters live.
-Monmouth Manufacturing, a re-purposed factory where Gansey, Ronan, and Noah live.
-The Pig, Gansey's constantly breaking, bright orange, 1973 Camaro.
Maggie's settings are aesthetic embodied. They are so much entangled with the plots and characters that I can't help but think of the settings when I think about the series. I have never read a book where the setting is so prevalent before. Maggie uses the same type of details that she uses about her characters to describe her places. She drops in details like they're nothing, but they really stick in the reader's mind because of her word choice.
If you've heard anything about Maggie Stiefvater, it's probably that her prose is gorgeous. Well, it's true. She is incredibly good at stringing words together in a pleasing manner. She is the Master of Metaphor and a Wizard of Wit. Here are a few of my favorite lines from The Raven Boys to give you an idea of her writing style, since I don't think I can do it justice by simply describing it:
Maura had decided sometime before Blue's birth that it was barbaric to order children about, and so Blue had grown up surrounded by imperative question marks.
Both of them could trot out logic on a nice little leash, wearing a smart plaid jacket, when they wanted to.
...he had the overpowering chemical scent of a manly shower gel. The sort that normally came in a black bottle and was called something like SHOCK or EXCITE or BLUNT TRAUMA.
She is also able to write dialogue very well; it sounds as though her characters are really speaking because she writes dialogue more like actual speech patterns than like grammatically correct sentences. Additionally, Maggie inserts snippets of identifiable truths into her novel in a quiet, unassuming way, just like she does with her character and setting details. One last thing that I enjoy about Maggie's writing is her vocabulary. She uses words like "quiddity" and "striated" and makes you take out the dictionary and expand your word horde.
In the words of Hamlet, "Ay, there's the rub" (III.i).
The Raven Cycle has a lot of problematic content for Christian readers.
First of all, the psychics. Blue's family does tarot readings, they scry, they do rituals, they meet with spirits. Neeve, Blue's half-aunt goes a little too far with her rituals sometimes, and the other women in 300 Fox Way know that, so I suppose there is a limit to what they're willing to do... But, according to the Bible, that kind of stuff—however "far" a person takes it—is wrong. I believe that if someone is engaging with spirits/a spiritual power that is not the Holy Spirit, that spirit/spiritual power is of the devil, for if it is not of God, then it must be of the devil. It's a little more complicated than that in The Raven Cycle, however, for the magic system is based in psychic activity (like the magic system from the Mistborn books is based in metal alloys). Thinking of the psychic content in this way made me enjoy and understand the books more, but I still want to caution readers who are wary about psychic activity. This may not be the series for you if psychics and spirits bother you.
Another content issue is Ronan's swearing. He swears. A lot. And not just PG-13 movie swearing... We're talking rated R for language books here, people (and also a lot of taking God's name in vain). Although I don't condone Ronan's swearing, as a writer, I do think it's an interesting character trait to have him swear so much when the other characters hardly ever swear. That's true to my experience of life... I have some friends who swear (like Ronan), but I have other friends who never swear (like Blue). Maggie clearly does not put swearing in her books because she doesn't have a good vocabulary, because she has excellent word choice in her novels. She does it because it's just a part of who Ronan is. If you are sensitive to language content (and specifically the f-word), you may want to skip these books.
There are some intense scenes as well. Adam is beaten by his father several times, and there are a few attempted murders/actual murders.
I think The Raven Boys (and The Raven Cycle in general) can teach writers a lot about character development, the use of setting as an integral part of the story, and how to use words themselves in beautiful written prose; however, there are also content issues that make me very hesitant to recommend this series. My advice to you, if you are thinking about picking up this series, is to do some serious thinking about what your tolerance for psychics and swearing is. Pray about it. Everyone is sensitive to varying degrees to different things.
Stay tuned for my review of the second book in The Raven Cycle later this week!
I'm curious, have any of you read The Raven Boys? What do you think about serious content issues in novels, movies, or TV? If the story features great characters and great writing, does that make up for content issues? Where do we, as Christian readers, draw the line? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!