True to its eclectic central ensemble, The Raven Boys, the first entry in the much-beloved Raven Cycle quartet by Maggie Stiefvater, is a study in odd yet illuminating pairings. Eerie paranormal atmosphere with a small-town, (mostly) working class point of departure. A messy present against a legendary past. Witches, ghosts, tombs and rituals…all explored in a car so shitty, Stiefvater makes it a running joke worthy of a teen comedy.
Even if none of these things entice you on their own, it’s worth picking up The Raven Boys just for a glimpse at how elegantly and effortlessly Stiefvater puts them to work together, uniting the book’s many contrasting influences under a thoughtful, self-aware take on a familiar theme: a cast of ordinary characters on a quest for glory and meaning.
Blue Sargent, the only non-psychic in a family full of them, is after an explanation when a spirit––of someone still living, but fated to die––appears to her for the first time. Gansey, unknowingly the spirit in question, is after the tomb of a legendary Welsh king. Accompanied by three of his prep school friends, Adam, Ronan, and Noah, the two end up embroiled in magic much older, and bigger, than them both, as buried secrets and strained home lives come to light.
Bear in mind, however, that the development of things in The Raven Boys is something of a slow burn. Important details aren’t always clear at first. Meetings that another writer would be eager to get out of the way wait until Stiefvater has us steeped in background and baggage, ready to appreciate their full significance.
This runs the risk of alienating some readers––and even did so for me, for about the first hundred pages––but with a contemporary fantasy that leans so heavily on the contemporary, an approach that takes such a risk is necessary. It gives us what we need to understand why someone like Gansey is after this legendary boon in the first place. I’ll use Emily Henry’s marvelous When The Sky Fell On Splendor as a point of comparison, because the answer in both works is essentially, and beautifully, the same: our characters are caught in the spell of thinking the extraordinary will bring order and significance to their cluttered, complicated, and often nonsensical ordinary lives. The books’ shared catharsis is the equal parts devastating and comforting assurance that it won’t.
Also held in common is an understanding that elevates the found family dynamics in The Raven Boys and When The Sky Fell On Splendor from “people who regularly ride in a car together” to relationships of real narrative importance. Both books get that the quest for glory can seem like it’s good for friendship, but is really just destructive. The Raven Boys, in particular, does a good job using its quest to poke at one dynamic in particular, with the added layer of class: that of Gansey and Adam.
Of the four titular Raven Boys, Adam is the only one to come from modest circumstances, and Stiefvater, in the steeping-time one might mistake for filler, is careful to note this. As a result, the conflict between them is rich, realistic, and ripe for the paranormal externalizing––fittingly, the culmination of all Gansey & co.’s questing is also a deeply satisfying answer to the inequality and dependence Gansey has cultivated among his friends over the years. And, overall, extending this consideration to Gansey’s disparity in means with Blue as well, the broader attention paid to class in this book is refreshing and much-appreciated.
Now, to discuss too much of the villain would be to drown in spoilers, so I say only this. In John Truby’s 2006 screenwriting masterpiece The Anatomy of Story, he writes that “the contrast between hero and opponent is powerful only when both characters have strong similarities,” and that “the best opponent is the necessary one: the character best able to attack the great weakness of your hero.” That last kernel of advice is often taken directly, but Stiefvater makes it work even better by comparison, crafting a dark mirror that takes Gansey’s flaws to chilling extremes. Her choice of opposition is perfect, and I will use it as an example whenever I make this point until the end of time. That is all.
But, however much praise I have for the choice itself, the execution of the twist associated with it is a little more mixed. I’m not entirely sure if the villain (and their buried connection to the main ensemble) was meant to surprise, but the pacing certainly gathers around the plot beat like they were, and whatever energy or forward thrust it might’ve added is noticeably missing in the lead-up to the climax. With a lack of investment in the character of [spoiler], what should really be a revelation lands as more of a dull thud, and even though the theme-related value of the development in question is abundant, the actual reading experience doesn’t make it feel that way.
Blue, also, can come across at times like an observer. Her drive as a character is plausible, and discernible even from the prologue’s four-page glance at her life as the one non-clairvoyant in a family of psychics. But though the book goes as far as to express that need directly in narration, and often, it’s never fully-realized, yielding a character with reasons to want a glimpse at the supernatural she’s been excluded from, but not, like with Gansey, a set of motivations you can feel.
That said, The Raven Boys is still a solid, satisfying first volume, and for the most part, it carries its task very well. I’m definitely continuing with the series! There’s a baby raven, a tragically-foreshadowed romantic subplot, and mysterious new magical powers yet to come in Stiefvater’s follow-up, The Dream Thieves. What’s not to love?
Thank you so much for reading? Have you read The Raven Boys? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕