Book (Series) Review: “The Raven Cycle” by Maggie Stiefvater

So I’m late to the reading game here, but pretty ahead of the game to be talking about this book series prior to the TV adaptation going underway. I’ve been thinking a lot about adaptations and have been playing obsessively around with a post on book-to-screen adaptations for the past few months, as I’ve been thinking about why I get anxious about new episodes of American Gods and why I am still too nervous to watch the third installment of The Hobbit. Changes from an adaptation scare me. I like the comfort of knowing a story as it plays out on screen. I like watching a story I don’t know play out on screen. I don’t like a familiar story twisting and changing on me. But more on that in that eventual adaptation post. Hearing that Maggie Steifvater’s The Raven Cycle is optioned for a TV series both thrills and excites me, but makes me feel like I have to talk about this story now before pop culture and the media devour it, spit it out, and make it more palatable for the public.

The Raven Cycle is a quartet of modern fantasy novels set in a small fictional town in rural Virginia. The locale of Henrietta is as much a character as any of the people within the story, and while many YA books can feel like they can be retold anywhere (in some ways, Forks, WA of Twilight could’ve been any rainy small town), The Raven Cycle is beautifully and uniquely Southern. That is particularly strange because the magic of the story feels as old and Celtic as that of Neil Gaiman or Dianna Wynne Jones. The magic is unknowable, not as logical and rule-abiding as that of Maas’s Court trilogy or Rowling’s Harry Potter series; it is strange and frightening and yet beautiful, like very old legends too nonsensical and amoral for fairytales. Though the setting is American, the mythology borrows from the Welsh, centering around the legend of Owen Glendower, the 15th century Welshman who was the last Welsh Prince of Wales prior to complete English subjugation of the Welsh. In the series, the magic and mysterious events in Henrietta, VA have led some to think the town holds the true grave of Glendower, who, legend has it, is sleeping a centuries-long sleep and will grant a mystical favor to whoever wakes him.

But Henrietta holds more magic than Glendower’s, as it is the home of a family of psychic women, led by matriarch Maura Sargent. Despite Maura’s genetic magical gifts, her teenaged daughter, Blue, has no magical gifts beyond the power to amplify the abilities of others and the knowledge of a curse she was born with: when she kisses her true love, he will die. Blue has avoided boys all her life, especially the wealthy and arrogant boys the all-boys prep school, Aglionby Academy, and plans to continue doing so until she sees a premonition of an Aglionby boy one night and foresees his death, a happening only possible if the boy is her true love. Yet when the boy shows up at her house seeking a psychic reading, Blue is pulled into his orbit in spite of herself.

Richard Cambell Gansey III is in many ways the privileged handsome rich boy Blue expects, but he is also a historian and unabashed nerdy genius whose entire life has been dedicated to finding Glendower, ever since he died and was strangely resurrected seven years ago with a whisper of Glendower’s name. He has traveled the world for magical occurrences in search of Glendower, and has finally become certain that the king is in Henrietta. He is dynamic and compelling, and has pulled in three others for his quest: Ronan Lynch, a moody delinquent with a lot of money and even more secrets; Adam Parrish, a trailer park boy who is working to afford Aglionby and flee his abusive father; Noah Czerny, an awkward and strange boy who is more than he appears. Determined to not fall in love with the charismatic Gansey, Blue finds herself falling for this bizarre group of boys and their crazy quest to unearth and wake an ancient Welsh king in the Virginia valley.

The story is told in close third-person, giving insight into all main characters as the series continues, and touching on minor characters like the various villains the teens come across in each book. It breaks down all expectations, as even though it begins with talk of true love and Blue’s curse, it is really a story about friendship and trust and loyalty. Romantic love is a part of the story–and not exactly in the way one expects–but ultimately none of the romantic love in the story can exist without the love of friends and family. There’s Blue’s tight-knit “family’ of psychics, extended relations and old family friends, who create magic together as eagerly and haphazardly as they do dinner. There’s the Ganseys–elite and powerful, able to have anything they want and ready to give to others, yet clueless as to how most people actually live; loving and compassionate, but uncomfortable with open emotion. There’s the Lynches–orphaned and yet individually independent due to money and intellect, but lost without guiding love and parental approval. There’s the Parrishes–selfish and cruel, destroying each other, and still afraid of one another. And finally there is the family the five teenagers carve out for themselves: Gansey feeling responsible for making the others happy and safe, Adam wanting to prove his worth to them all, Ronan afraid to look weak, but relying on everyone to keep him from destroying himself, Noah longing to be present and needed at all times, and Blue needing to find simple joy and meaning in the life that she has and especially in peace for each of them. Awkwardly straddling childhood and adulthood, each one of the kids wants to feel both needed and protected, and they find that in each other.

I was wary of the series’ premise and having recently been foraying back into YA, I was unsure if I would relate to these characters who are so much younger. But it reminded me so much of having been a teenager, feeling old and young simultaneously. As the kids sped around in Gansey’s Camaro or Ronan’s BMW, I remembered speeding in the backseat of my friend’s Honda Civic, doing nothing and actually pretty miserable about life but also terribly happy for the good moment I was living. The world of The Raven Cycle is fantastical, but also harshly realistic. Adam’s fear of his abusive father was believable, and honestly, a little triggering for me, recalling the dread of going home and the feeling of being ever-so-careful around a parent. Ronan’s suffering and self-loathing was something of what anyone feels when they aren’t like the people around them. Blue’s constant push-back against sexism–especially surrounded by well-meaning boys who just don’t get why she doesn’t let sexism roll off her–was poignant and genuine. And Gansey’s need to feel special was embarrassingly so much like I always felt burgeoning in me during  adolescence.

I may be heaping on the praise in unusual amounts here, but I had low expectations and just a vague interest in seeing what the #bookstagram fuss was about this series, and I was blown away. Beyond the richness of the story and complexity of the characters, Stiefvater’s execution is strong and the writing is technically solid, which you can’t say for even many otherwise great YA novels (Maas, I love you, but I’m looking at you). The sequences of events are woven in a way that keeps you guessing but not impatient. Stylistically, Stiefavter toys with repetition, like an old legend or tale, which is off-putting at first, but she manages it surprisingly effectively. Like the story itself, the writing is risky, but I was finding myself pausing and admiring it, which I don’t often do.

Additionally, every detail of the The Raven Cycle is so exact, and you can immerse yourself totally in that world. I know nothing about cars (anyone will tell I will accidentally climb into a stranger’s car), but I felt I could picture Gansey’s orange ’73 Camaro or Kavinsky’s white Mitsubishi as easily as I could hear Ronan’s pumping electronica or feel Orphan Girl’s manky sweater or taste the Fox Way psychics’ terrible teas. Every character has attributes that are memorable and don’t feel forced, but feel like the complexities of actual people. I finished the series last night (early this morning technically) and I already miss them. I would say the only real flaw in the series is the ending, which unfortunately leaves too much unanswered and felt rushed in certain ways. But as Stiefvater is working on a sequel series, focusing on the absolutely divinely rendered Ronan Lynch, I’m guessing the open-ended questions are intentional, and maybe more will be explained.

This time next year, we’ll probably have a show on the way or on air, and these characters will be out there for a lot more people to enjoy. Catherine Hardwicke (director of Twilight) is behind this so I’m not holding my breath, but depending who writes the script and what network gets it, this could be brilliant. America could forget about making a shoddy U.S. version of Misfits and make this our Misfits, if networks and writers are willing to take some risks of their own. And once this gets on air…I’m definitely going to be too anxious about what they’ll change, but I’ll be coming back here to rant.

What are some of your favorite books that blew your expectations out of the water?

Have you read The Raven Cycle? If so, please feel free to fangirl with me all day, everyday.


Brittany Ann Zayas

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