(This is like the longest book review I’ve ever written. If you want the short of it, you could just read the first and last sections.)
Finding information about Maggie Stiefvater is not as straight-forward as I would have expected in this day and age of digital TMI. But she seems to keep a pretty low profile and the most reliable info I could find is that she is a best-selling author, young(ish), and lives in Virginia with her husband and kids and animals. She’s also an artist and (at least amateur) musician. I also can’t figure out how she’s a New York Times bestseller but her books aren’t around most bookshops I looked in. Does she sell better in Europe? Even the booksellers I asked about her didn’t seem to know who I was talking about. Weird. Beyond that, I can tell you what books she has published (basically in order). (The books she is most know for are Shiver, The Raven Cycle, and The Scorpio Races.)
- Books of Faerie: Lament, Ballad
- Wolves of Mercy Falls: Shiver, Linger, Forever, Sinner
- The Scorpio Races
- The Raven Cycle: The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves, Blue Lily Lily Blue, The Raven King and a postquel, Opal
- Wrote book 2 of the Spirit Animals series
- Pip Bartlett series (for younger kids)
- All the Crooked Saints
- Dreamer Trilogy: Call Down the Hawk, Mister Impossible, Greywaren
- Swamp Thing (graphic novel)
- Bravely (in cooperation with Disney)
Shiver is on my TBR (which means I might have to read all four Wolves of Mercy Falls books, eventually). This time, however, I read the Raven Cycle. Book one, The Raven Boys, was on my TBR as YA lit that would be good to read while writing my own YA trilogy. I ended up reading the cycle (of four, as you’ll read below), but I did not read Opal, the postquel, or the spin-off Dreamer Series.
The Raven Cycle opens with Blue—a girl from a small town in rural Virginia—and a prophecy. She is going to kill her true love with a kiss. So she stays away from true loves as much as she stays away from the obnoxious, rich boys who attend the private, boarding school in her town, the Aglionby Ravens. But when she attends an annual ritual with one of the many psychic women who live in her home at 300 Fox Way, she sees an Aglionby boy and knows he is going to die in the next year. And then she meets him.
As much as the book begins with Blue, it takes the POV of five people: Blue and four Aglionby boys, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and more rarely Noah. Which means that these books are much heavier on the male perspective than one might think reading the back cover copy or the first chapters. Which just means they are more appropriate for boys who don’t love romance than you might at first think. They have an edge to them, for sure, and end up dealing not just with magic and the occult, but with the heavier things of YA (death, loss, even abuse, identity) and things like hating school, role models, sports cars, gadgets, nature and animals, some politics (as a general construct), even organized crime and hit men. I don’t know what more to say without just writing out the plot, which develops quite slowly over the four books, making each of them feel pretty different. Each of the characters is carrying at least one big secret and has at least one antagonist coming for them. All their storylines end up weaving together and the minor characters are part of the larger story. The romance at the beginning simmers in the background and plays quite a small role, as does the other love stories including an LGBTQ+ one.
Like with Percy Jackson, I was conflicted about reading past the first book of this four-book series by Maggie Stiefvater. Unlike Percy Jackson, though, I had often found it listed alone and thought it could probably stand alone just fine and maybe the other books in the series just weren’t as good. However, when I finished The Raven Boys, I was stuck. The book felt like the beginning of a series and was, in many ways, quite unsatisfactory to stand alone. Then again, if I hadn’t seen the later books showing up in best books lists as much, did that mean this was the best that the series had to offer? And I needed to just call it? The truth was, too, that I was torn about how I even felt about the first book. Sure, it was pretty perfect as being similar in tone and genre to the project I was writing, which is why I even picked it up. Continuing to read the “cycle” (gag) would keep me in the space and even if things went south, I could still learn from the series. But did I want to spend three more books, around $30, and maybe ten days to two weeks reading a series I didn’t love? I mean, I was about to do that very thing with Percy Jackson because everyone assured me that—despite what I saw in the first book—it was a great series (just maybe not for me). (Please note that these series have almost nothing in common. I was just having a similar dilemma about them both.)
In the end, I decided to continue with the series, which means that my blog review posts just keep spreading out to wait on enormous series(es): Percy Jackson (which is on back order as a boxed set), The Raven Cycle, His Dark Materials, The Mortal Instruments, The Infernal Devices, and then more. I mean, I’m writing a YA fantasy adventure trilogy, so this makes sense, but I have to figure out how to keep people interested in The Starving Artist, too. Perhaps I am attaching too much importance to it. And onward!
THE RAVEN BOYS
I enjoyed reading book 1, The Raven Boys. Being as old and as well-read as I am, I couldn’t agree with many of the assessments of Steifvater’s writing. However, I can agree that for the genre (YA paranormal) it is decidedly literary and this I can celebrate along with many of her devoted readers. (It’s not that it isn’t witty, clever, and descriptive, it’s just that it doesn’t maintain those things at all times. I mean, nearly everything in the sightline of the POV characters was “sharp,” frequently we lose track of blocking, etc., both of which continue into the later books). Certainly the story kept me reading and the quick tempo was pretty great. Again, being me (and extremely in tune with story therefore very rarely surprised) I didn’t find any of the twists surprising in this first book. I saw them all coming, which was a bummer, because the twists are, I’m sure, half the fun here. (I was surprised a couple times later in the books, mostly in the last one, which was fun.)
The only surprise I really had was how sudden and yet unresolved the ending was (of book one. Still reviewing book one). To be honest, I found the main bit of the climax to be like, “No. I don’t think so.” Also, not sure I even really get it/believe it. The romantic tension in the book is very well done. The cast of characters is extremely well-drawn and interesting, though there are a few too many, unnecessary characters (specifically in Blue’s house). There are questions that will certainly carry on into the series, but I was disappointed that it didn’t have more immediate resolution. I partly blame the cover copy for this. The big question on the back is the question of the series, which I think is bad marketing, at least as the primary question on the back. The first book is a whodunnit, really, and it should have been framed that way. (By the way, the first book of my trilogy is also a whodunnit (or “whydunnit” in Save the Cat!-speak) which is not the same as the trilogy as a whole.)
I like the quirk. I appreciated a little darkness, and a little edge, which felt in tune with actual teens, but that’s also the sensibility of Blue and the moral compass of the whole thing. That might sound a little strange because it’s chock-full of psychics and eventually even magic as practiced (or attempted by) real “witches,” but as of book one, there was still a clear line between messing with the dark side of the supernatural and being curious about the strange side of the natural world. Yes, I was a little conflicted, but also intrigued. (Pretty funny how she doesn’t cuss much in her books but tries to convey that her characters do.) I decided at this point that I wanted to switch the POV of my own trilogy, which Stiefvater gave me the courage to do. But did I want to keep reading? I thought so, so I did.
THE DREAM THIEVES
There was a problem with this book that was not its fault. I ordered it used on Ebay, and I was several chapters in before I realized that some of my tripping over the prose was because I had somehow ended up with a British copy of this American book. It was the use of “boot” instead of “trunk” that finally made me turn to the copyright page to see that it was printed in London (after “tyre” baffling me for awhile). So there was that. And yet I read plenty of British books and even have some British editions of my favorites, on purpose. But there was something else going on here, and while it had carried over from the first book, it was more distracting and prevalent in book two (which is often a case of better editing and slower writing for book one in many series). Stiefvater is a talented writer, but uneven. Some of her writing comes off as interesting, poetic, and insightful. Much of it reads as just plain trying too hard. Let me give you a couple, random examples (most pages had them) of lines that would be ripped apart by your high school English teacher because the qualifiers don’t match the object, etc.:
“He wore a white vest, and his exposed shoulder was raw and beautiful as a corpse” (p274).
“He was as hungry as the night” (p272) (as well as a few mentions of “midnight road”s).
“The engine ticked like the twitch of a dying man’s foot” (p122).
What she meant was, his exposed shoulder looked raw and corpselike but still beautiful, he was hungry for his internal darkness to swallow the world around him, it was around midnight and dark outside, and the engine ticked slower and slower as it died. The three sentences above are basically nonsense, but vaguely poetic nonsense. I believe that in the first book, I complained about this in terms of everything being “sharp,” things that couldn’t possibly be sharp and were awkward even as metaphorically sharp. And the point I’m making is that these little missteps are distracting. As a reader, I can’t read fluidly or get lost in a book or its story if I’m constantly stopping to process awkward or impossible sentences, wondering what the heck Stiefvater meant. I can see the English teacher comments in the margins: “Is a corpse beautiful?” “How is night hungry?” and “How exactly does a dying man’s foot twitch differently from someone else’s foot?” I read a few sentences aloud to my husband as I went, and educated and snooty as we can sometimes be, we LOLed together without any explanation needed on my part (ex.
“Maura had ordered herself one of those small birds that was served looking like it had walked on to the plate under its own steam” (p226). Uh, what?)
There was another issue here. If you recall from a couple minutes ago in my review, I was confused by the ending of The Raven Boys. Therefore, I was disappointed to learn that The Dream Thieves would do nothing to clarify or explain, even repeat, what had happened in Book One at all. Not only had it been like a month since I’d read The Raven Boys, but I was confused about what happened, even then. So I felt really lost about a couple things, especially whatever’s supposed to be going on with Adam. I love when things are spelled out and explained directly even when done in beautiful, literary ways, but I am still lost about some things that are going on, no thanks to Book Two.
In the end, this book had more of a dramatic finish (and one that I understood) than the first. So there’s that. Though I think besides language, one of the issues with these books is pacing. Characters, good. Setting, good. Romance, good. Story idea, pretty good. Even POV is pretty good (though it leaves characters for too long, I think). But pacing and language? Distracting and awkward. And then, after this dramatic ending, I found myself asking, “Did I enjoy it?” I was still in the same place as after book one: yes, and sometimes no. I did enjoy it, but it was far from perfect and at times—yes, again—distracting from the reader flow. But there was something about the series and its mood that made me decide to finish out the series with the last two books, especially since we are still clearly building toward the finale and the answer to the original question: Does Blue kill Gansey? The romance (kind of a love triangle) builds and is probably what keeps me reading.
BLUE LILLY, LILLY BLUE
Unbelievably, I am now really into these books. I can’t tell if the third book is any better than the first two—I am still confused from time to time and there was one major thing that must have been so subtle when it was revealed that I was like, What?! yet I could tell I was already supposed to know—but I am hooked. I think it likely that it is the characters that are hooking me and maybe the authentic, YA voice. Though, honestly, some of the characters tend to be a bit over the top in a caricature-y way which I thought was magnified by a couple new characters who are for sure over-the-top to the point of caricature. The romance is still sizzling and that is another thing that keeps me going with the books (though it is not as central to the book as the adventure, which as I keep saying, can sometimes be confusing).
Here’s the thing. I like to be told straight. I love poetic writing and I love writing innovation, but only if I still understand what is going on because the writer made it obvious. I don’t do games well, not even in daily conversation and normal life. So, if you couldn’t tell from many other reviews, I don’t enjoy reading oblique writing (even though I am sometimes guilty of writing it). I mean, the author probably thinks it’s obvious, but I, as a very-well-read and critical reader, was still not sure what was always going on in the Raven Cycle in book three. Though I do think, actually, the writing was much clearer than before, generally, still with some blocking issues, etc. I was just still catching up to things from the first two books. And I was enjoying the craft of Stiefvater’s actual writing, which for YA is something special. And I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to buy the last one ASAP so I could get to the pow-pow-pow of the finale and find out how this is going to go down. Because the set-ups, the plot twists, the tension, the premise, the romance, are all good ones that are sure to keep you guessing: they could go different ways and still be believable, so you’re just dying to know. (It’s one of the those series where you could believe it a comedy or tragedy, which is great for tension-building.)
Also much more humor in the third book, and used to better effect. And though it’s sometimes comical, I still think there are way too many characters in Blue’s house. And, as I said way back in book one, the POV shifts are sometimes confusing/distracting too. Funnily enough, some things are repeated too much in this book (but is that my trade-off for clarity? I’ll take it.) and there are some actual surprises along the way. Am I so interested that I’m overlooking faults at this point? Maybe. Like there’s a motivation (other people’s feelings) in the romance story that I don’t quite believe, and I wish Stiefvater had stuck to the more obvious one (fear of death). Then again, I am intrigued by the whole being in love with one’s friends and the intensity of some relationships, even between multiple people.
The love triangle seems like it might be becoming a love square.
Guess we’ll see where all this ends up. And soon.
THE RAVEN KING
As I said for book three, either this series is getting better-written or I am just too invested to notice its glaring faults, anymore. Either way, by book four I was eating it mostly all up. (I did still notice some pacing issues and Stiefvater trying too hard with her fancy language and therefore sometimes not really making sense). But I also see her writing as sometimes poetic and sometimes playful, and I like the little bits of experimentation she dips into—as long as it’s a clear passage (which is isn’t always). We do have bit of a love square, now, and I found everything overall clearer in The Raven King. And when I was done, I wanted to read more, which though I kinda hate it is one of the signs of a good book/series.
There are two things: the occult stuff gets heavier as the books progress. Technically there is a distinction made between using magic in a “good” versus “bad” way and between “good” and “bad” guys, but it is a bit of a slope and not a clear delineation. I mean, without an external measuring stick (like a religion or something), we’re just figuring this out based on how it affects the characters we like and are rooting for. And vague assumption, like demon = bad; tree spirit = good. As a Christian in my 40s, I didn’t find things too confusing, but it is, perhaps, unclear, and if you take this sort of thing seriously, you may want to think twice about delving in. For me, there is a difference between magic used as a device of fiction (and therefore often metaphoric) and the occult as it plays out in real life. This book, since it places a lot of magic into realistic scenarios (like tarot cards and a psychic hotline) jumps back and forth and may not be for everyone. And the other thing: I found the pacing of the ending to be off. It just plain when too fast. And yes, once again, I got confused at one spot and was grasping for clarity even though this book was by far the clearest. I thought the ending worked, but would have been better if a few key moments were slowed way the heck down.
So what can I say, in the end? This review has been messy because my thoughts and feelings about this book were messy and varied from passage to passage. I would say that in the end I liked this series and enjoyed reading it, got more into it with each page. It was full of highlights and lowlights and in the end I am glad I got to know these characters and go on their adventures, even if I rolled my eyes along the way. Also, if this series is any indication, I think that Steifvater is getting better at expressing her unique voice and creating good stories, so we’ll have to wait and see what comes out next. (I mean, she already has some later books, but I haven’t seen the awards or whatever for those, so maybe she just needs another great idea for a new series, first.) Yet for all my wishing it wasn’t quite over, I don’t feel a desire to read Opal (the postquel) or the series that centers just around Ronan, The Dreamer Series. It’s a recommend, but perhaps read (or scan) the review here first to see if you would handle the inconsistencies well. If you just want to read for a good time and you’re not picky and you also are interested in the premise, then absolutely. But even picky me: I enjoyed it, especially when the author stopped trying so hard and I understood what the heck was going on.
THE RAVEN BOYS
“Both of them could trot out logic on a nice little leash, wearing a smart plaid jacket, when they wanted to” (p44).
“He’d chosen his weapon well: only the truth, untampered by kindness” (p49).
“’My mother used to say, don’t throw compliments away, so long as they’re free.’ His face was very earnest. ‘That one wasn’t meant to cost you anything, Blue’” (p302).
THE DREAM THIEVES
“Adam was so used to the right way being painful that he doubted any path that didn’t come with agony” (p74).
“The planet spins at over a thousand miles an hour all the time. Actually, it’s going around the sun at sixty-seven thousand miles an hour, even if it wasn’t spinning. So you can move plenty fast without going anywhere” (p230).
“If he had no one to wrap their arms around him when he was sad, could he be forgiven for letting his anger lead him?” (p382).
BLUE LILLY, LILLY BLUE
“If there was one thing Blue had learned while being a waitress and dog walker and Maura Sargent’s daughter, it was that people generally become the kind of person you expected them to be” (p107).
“But fear hurt, too. / Just because it tantrums, Persephone had added, doesn’t make it more right than you” (p125).
“…though really, historians were such Guessy McGuessers…” (p171).
“’I just wanted him to feel busy and watched. There’s nothing like paperwork to make a man feel oppressed’” (p173).
“How unfair she’d been to assume love and money would preclude pain and hardship” (p242).
“It wasn’t that Adam had ever gotten used to being struck. Pain was a wondrous thing that way; it always worked” (p259).
THE RAVEN KING
“Other classmates complained about the work. Work! Work was the island Adam swam to in a stormy sea” (p16).
“’It’s not always running away,’ Jimi said, her voice deep and rumbling through her chest to Blue’s ear. ‘To leave’” (79).
“’But the difference between a nice house and a nice prison is really small. We chose Fox Way. We made it, Calla and Persephone and I. But it’s only your origin story, not your final destination’” (p79).
“’And it’s not always a forever good-bye. There’s leaving and coming back’” (p80).
“She could feel herself hurtling toward self-awareness, and she wasn’t sure she liked it” (p111).
“His pause at this point in the conversation was evidence of the Gray Man regrowing his heart. It was a pity that the seedling of it had to erupt into the same torched ground that had killed it in the first place. Consequences, as Calla often said, were a bitch” (p123).
“’Still time if it’s not far, then.’ Adam Parrish was about thinking about his resources: money, time, sleep. On a school night, even one with supernatural threats breathing on his collar, Ronan knew that Adam would be stingy with all of these; this was how he stayed alive” (p144).
“But it wasn’t that Henry was less of himself in English. He was less of himself out loud. His native language was thought” (p266).
“…something more, by its definition, would always be different than what you already had in your hand” (p268).
“He felt he’d already asked the question; he couldn’t also give the answer” (p283).
“That was what money did. It put plungers in copper pots, and extra dishes behind glass doors, and toys into carved hope chests, and hung skillets from iron pot racks” (p300).
“I stopped asking how. I just did it. The head is too wise. The heart is all fire” (p338).
“His father was not frightening unless you were already afraid” (p431).