Book review: Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Raven Boys”

Young adult author Maggie Stiefvater has certainly had a winning streak when it comes to the critics and bestseller lists.

Her “The Wolves of Mercy Falls” trilogy all ended up on the New York Times Bestseller list, with the second book, “Linger”, debuting on the top spot. “Lament”, her debut novel, was named a best book for young adults by the American Library Association (ALA).

Her most recent work, “The Scorpio Races”, was not only named a best book of 2011 by Publisher’s Weekly, The School Library Journal, and the New York Times, but was also given a 2012 Michael L. Printz Award Honor. The Michael L. Printz Award highlights works of literary excellence that are written for a young adult audience.

With such a string of hits, there’s quite a lot of pressure on Stiefvater’s latest work, “The Raven Boys”, to live up to its successful predecessors. Will this new novel be the start of another successful young adult (YA) series? Or will “The Raven Boys” spoil Stiefvater’s so far perfect record?

“The Raven Boys” tells the story of Blue Sargent, a 16-year-old living in a house full of psychics, one of which is her mother. While everyone in her family has some sort of psychic gift — from clairvoyance to psychometry — Blue has none.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any predictions about her. Ever since she was a child, Blue has been told that she would kill her one true love. But since she’s never believed in true love, this morbid prediction hasn’t troubled her at all.

However, things change when she encounters Gansey and his friends Adam, Ronan, and Noah. The four boys all study at Aglionby, the local private school whose students are more popularly known as Raven Boys, and Blue finds herself drawn to the mysterious supernatural quest that the boys are immersed in.

But what is more troubling for Blue is the fact that she is drawn to Gansey, despite the foreboding prediction that has hounded her her whole life, and despite the fact that Raven Boys can only mean trouble. Things are even further complicated when it becomes clear that the Raven Boys’ quest is much more dangerous than it seems. Will Blue be able to pull through with her life and her heart intact?

It’s interesting to read “The Raven Boys” because it is apparent early on in the novel that Stiefvater is trying an entirely different approach compared to her “The Wolves of Mercy Falls” trilogy and “The Scorpio Races”.

While the same stunning, lyrical prose is still present in “The Raven Boys”, it has taken on a much more restrained tone in this current work. “The Raven Boys” is certainly less atmospheric than either “The Wolves of Mercy Falls” trilogy or “The Scorpio Races”, and Henrietta — the small town where all the characters live — never comes fully alive like Mercy Falls or Thisby did.

But whatever may be lacking when it comes to atmosphere and local color, Stiefvater certainly makes up for when it comes to describing the main movers in her tale. Stiefvater manages to create such clear characters with just a couple of sentences that it’s hard not to be impressed when you read it on the page. When she describes Adam, the poorest Raven Boy in Gansey’s group, as a sepia photograph, one can’t help but be amazed by the ingenuity and the accuracy of her description.

Gansey is another beneficiary of Stiefvater’s on-point prose. Her describing Gansey’s fist bump with Adam as a “borrowed phrase of another language” is wonderful; in just two sentences Gansey’s character is so clearly drawn. And the best part is, all of this happens less than 50 pages in!

If anything has remained the same all throughout Stiefvater’s oeuvre, it is the presence of poverty and magic, often side by side. This was especially apparent in “The Scorpio Races”, where the residents of Thisby depend on the primal and magical capaill uisce to keep their town alive.

Poverty is equally apparent in “The Raven Boys” as it is in “The Scorpio Races”. And while Stiefvater isn’t the first YA author to place her characters in poverty, she seems to be the best one at describing it realistically amongst the crop of YA supernatural romance authors.

Take, for instance, this description of Gansey and Adam: “When Gansey was polite, it made him powerful. When Adam was polite, he was giving power away.” It’s a small but incredibly perceptive observation, delivered without any melodrama, about the difference that exists between the rich and the poor.

Stiefvater also applies the same sensitivity when dealing with the abuse that Adam suffers at the hands of his father. Stiefvater doesn’t show a lot of violence being done towards Adam throughout the book, but she does make the ones that happen count and have a deep and emotional impact on the reader.

Just like in “The Scorpio Races”, magic is very much rooted in reality in “The Raven Boys”. Even with their abilities, the psychics in Blue’s family still need to make a living, and what better way to do it than set up shop as a fortune-telling business? Stiefvater works within the image most people have of psychics, only subtly tweaking those conventions and thereby making these psychics totally plausible in the real world.

While Stiefvater doesn’t deliver the same tour de force performance that she did in “The Scorpio Races”, there’s no denying that “The Raven Boys” looks set to be a worthy addition to Stiefvater’s bestselling and critically-acclaimed work. And with three more books to come in this series, it looks like the only way for it to go is up.

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