With the fourth and final book in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle coming in April, I finally gave myself permission to read the series I’ve heard so many good things about over the years. I must say, the first three books managed to exceed my expectations, and now I’m afraid I’m going to be very impatient for the remaining weeks until I get my grubby fingers on the last book.
One of the less obvious advantages of waiting as long as I did to read this series was not only that I didn’t have to suffer through the dreadful waiting periods between installations, but also that I had actually completely forgotten the premise of the books. The story was actually a surprise, even with as many reviews as I had read of The Raven Boys back in the day. I was gratified to be greeted foremost with an inventive story, but also the satisfaction of this not being yet another dystopian YA melodrama. Which isn’t to say I hadn’t enjoyed my fair share of those, but to be publishing anything else in the YA sphere during Peak Apocalypse is a good way to stand out. Rather, what we have in The Raven Cycle is more in the way of supernatural urban fantasy, which is itself a very saturated genre, but what if I told you there are no vampires, werewolves, angels, or demons in sight? The magic in these books is Earth-bound, expressed by people with clairvoyant tendencies and other ties to ley lines rooted in the environment. Welsh mythology is liberally sprinkled in, and you have a story of wonder, discovery, belief and disbelief, and self-reliance.
In The Raven Boys, we are introduced to Blue Sargent, youngest daughter of an extended family of psychic women, except Blue herself doesn’t seem to have any abilities other than being able to amplify the energy her mother, aunts, and cousins read. The women aren’t charlatans and are somewhat well-known in their folksy town of Henrietta, Virgina for being able to make accurate, if not entirely specific, predictions. As a teen in a family of weirdoes, Blue is kind of a loner outcast among peers her own age, and she especially avoids associating with the young men who attend the snooty nearby Aglionby private prep school, as they’re pretty uniformly privileged and irritating. This changes when Blue partakes in an annual tradition with one of her aunts, where souls walk the ley line, or corpse road, that runs through Henrietta, and her aunt is able to communicate with them. These souls represent people in the town who will, sadly, die within the next year. Usually, Blue just participates by writing down the names of the souls who speak to her relatives, being unable to see them herself, but this year, she sees and speaks with one boy, about her age, wearing the trademark Aglionby uniform bearing a crest with ravens on it; she is told by her aunt that a non-seer will only see someone on the corpse road either if they kill that person, or if that person is their true love. This strikes a particular chord with Blue. She’s been told since she was young, by every reliable psychic she’s known, that if she kisses her true love, he will die. So while she doesn’t know this “Raven Boy,” as she calls them, she’s stunned by the idea that she will somehow get close enough to one to bring about his death.
On the other side of eerie encounter is Gansey, the Raven Boy in question. He’s been trying to find and map the ley line as a personal project, owing to an obsession with the myth of a centuries-passed Welsh king, Glendower. The legend says that Glendower never died, but still sleeps, supernaturally supported by the magic in the ley lines, and that the Virginia line is among the strongest and evidence supports Glendower being buried there, and not in Britain. The legend also says that whoever wakes Glendower will be granted a favor from him, rather like getting wishes from a genie. Gansey, along with his friends Ronan, Adam, and Noah, each have a favor they’d ask of Glendower, so they’re eager to find him.
The Dream Thieves (SPOILERS, PROBABLY, FOR THE FIRST BOOK) delves a little more deeply into unique magic gifts and their connections to the ley lines. Officially a band of friends, (a lot happens in the first book that I obviously didn’t go into) Blue and the Boys continue to seek Glendower but are dealing with the ramifications of what it means to become so immersed within the magic that you have to actively will your mind to remain yours, to remain human. Additionally, they are confronted by a true adversary that is in direct competition not so much for a particular favor from Glendower, but who wants to take by force a magical conduit that drains power from the ley lines and so could keep Glendower hidden. There’s also a deeper examination of the solidity of friendship when the balance of power shifts: Adam, being the only boy in the group that doesn’t come from a background of privilege, nurses a powerful inferiority complex and a deep resentment at any action from Gansey that he perceives to be coming from pity and charity. He’s not always wrong — Gansey does sometimes speak without thinking — but Adam ends up alienating people by being unable to differentiate between gifts and good will that friends give each other, and handouts. In this installment, he had made a sacrifice that imbued him with a type of magic that he doesn’t fully understand, but that does allow him to communicate with the ley line in a way that Gansey can’t. Ronan, too, is revealed to have a valuable magical skill set, and so the group dynamic changes from accepting Gansey as the de facto leader and magical acolyte to giving Ronan and Adam a bit more of their own agency outside of Gansey’s agenda. It’s not that Gansey ever threw his weight around, but he did inspire confidence in his friends to join him on the quest that they weren’t even so sure they believed in themselves, and now that they have their own personal connection to the ley line they have to nurture their confidence to make their own moves.
For her part, Blue is still dealing with her ambiguous role in Gansey’s future death, and she can’t help but be alarmed to admit to herself that against all better judgement, she does have feelings for him. Luckily for both of them, Blue is nothing if not sensible — or at least that’s what everyone else says — so she knows better than to get in too deep with him.
Blue Lily, Lily Blue (SPOILERS, PROBABLY, FOR THE FIRST TWO BOOKS) cuts very personally to Blue: her mother is missing, and all signs point to her being underground with Glendower. The adversary from The Dream Thieves shows up in person to intimidate, and the group is somewhat disjointed. They’re not out of sync emotionally, and they still have each others’ backs, but the trend from the second book of needing to take care of personal responsibilities continued. I enjoyed all of the books approximately equally, but out of the three, this was the one that had the least of an arc independent of the other books that was resolved just inside of the one volume. This was fine, as the penultimate book, so it made sense that as the stakes get higher, it’s going to be less simple to solve certain problems in the scope of one book. In a smart move, the slowing of the plot allowed for some deeper explorations of the characters with whom we have now spent three books. There is still the pressing question of what is going to happen with Blue and Gansey, but that drama is mercifully not beaten past death. Instead, we finally get a little more understanding about the nature of Blue’s abilities, as well as reinforcement of Gansey’s leadership and connection to Glendower, even if he doesn’t have obvious supernatural gifts. Blue is a very unique character. She has a few iconoclastic qualities that recommend her as a “badass” female character that we like to see in books consumed primarily by young women, but she’s thankfully not set up as the single most important person in the history of magic, turning her into more of a symbol that needs protecting than a person. I have no doubt she will play an important role coming up, but I appreciate that she contributes value to the ensemble rather than being the Special Snowflake. Adam continues to grow into his confidence and that trust in himself allows him to trust his friends more, as well. Noah, whose place in the group is the most unstable for obvious (if you’ve read the books and not just this vague review) reasons, is coming to terms with his condition as well, occasionally offering unsettling insight which the others are unable to have. Finally, Ronan is learning to control his abilities, but I have a feeling that we haven’t seen all he can do. The antagonist is coming directly for his talent, which so far has proved useful but not plot-breakingly significant. What has been developing is a pretty lovely personal interplay between Ronan and Adam, the two boys turning to each other for support outside of Gansey’s powerful shadow, and the prickly but unconditionally supportive relationship between them provides some of the foundation for each others’ growing confidence in their abilities.
One thing I really appreciated about the series overall is that it really didn’t follow the pattern of the YA trilogy that became par for the course, where each “ending” was really only a vague half-resolution that was meant to segue directly into the next book. Of course, I don’t want to discuss specifically the way that each book ended, but suffice it to say that other than the overarching plot of searching for Glendower, all of the books — even the third — had a specific motive that drove that portion of the story and was able to resolve it while contributing clues to the larger arc. In total, I was really impressed by the way Stiefvater structured and paced everything, and unlike many series as I came close to the end, I am not dubious about how she is going to be able to tie everything up by the end. She hasn’t let the story get away from her so far, so I have complete confidence that she’s going to make all the right connections.