Somehow, paranormal things seem to happen mostly in rural areas. This is my conclusion after watching Stranger Things, reading a bunch of books from the 80s and now The Raven Boys. In this context I came across the hype surrounding this book on Tumblr, and at first it didn’t appeal to me. I felt like this was just another rich boy meets poor girl situation with some supernatural elements thrown in. But then I was intrigued: On Tumblr I found random catchphrases (Yeehaw?), something to do with Coca-Cola, a ghost, a baby raven and a psychic named Blue? I couldn’t connect any of these things that the fandom seemed to revolve around, but I did want to know more. Maybe The Raven Boys was a lot better than what I’d thought, so I gave it a try. All of a sudden all of those phrases made sense and I could not put the book down.
Blue Sargent is an ordinary 16-year-old girl, who grows up with her psychic mother and they share their house with a number of ‘aunts’ who are all psychics. The strange thing, though, is that Blue is the only woman in her family who isn’t psychic: she only makes the powers of the women around her stronger, just with her presence. The story starts off when Blue accompanies her aunt to the ghost watch, where they can see the people who are going to die in that year. Blue normally never sees anyone, because she isn’t psychic, but this year she does see one boy quite clearly and she even talks to him. That’s how she finds out his name is Gansey. There are only two possible explanations for her seeing a ghost all of a sudden: either he is her true love or he will be killed by her. Also, Blue grew up with the warning that if she ever kissed her true love, he would die.
At the same time, four boys go to school at the prestigious Anglionby in the same little town that Blue lives in, called Henrietta. Due to the crest on their uniforms, people often call them the ‘Raven boys’. Richard Gansey III is something of a crazy scientist, though only seventeen, who believes that there is a Welsh King buried in that small town. He drags his three friends, Adam, Ronan and Noah, along with him in his quest. When the boys go out for pizza one night, they meet Blue for the first time, who works as a waitress. But it’s not Gansey who takes an interest in Blue, he actually fights with her, but it’s Adam. As the days continue, the boys and Blue cross paths once again when they visit her mother for a reading and Adam and Blue strike up a friendship of sorts.
Soon, the five of them turn into a little gang and Gansey’s dreams of finding the body of the Welsh king Glendower sweeps them up. During his search he has found that a ley line, an alignment of landmarks that are said to have potent spiritual abilities, runs through Henrietta and he believes to find the king there. During their search they find that magic is real, that a ley line can be woken up and that Blue’s powers are significant on their own. They encounter woods that change seasons rapidly, a ghost, trees that speak in Latin, a landmark that gives one visions and a dark secret concerning one of their professors. It’s all very thrilling, but saying anything more means I would go into spoilers unfortunately.
One of the great things about this novel, and the reason I could not put it down, was the style in which it is written. Maggie Stiefvater writes in a very simplistic style, so it takes you no effort at all to read her book. This used to be one of the reasons I looked down on reading Young Adult books, because in my mind a book had to be difficult to read? It made no sense, and I’m so glad I’m over that now. But The Raven Boys keeps you turning pages and I loved it. There was even the occasional gorgeous sentence that just made me go: Wow… Let me give you one example:
“You’re looking for a god. Didn’t you suspect that there was also a devil?”
But the best thing about it was the dialogue. Some of the things people said in this book were simply hilarious, because it was both awkward and something one would say blurting out. This made it incredibly realistic, like when people are funny before they realise it themselves. It’s a rare thing to read dialogue in a book that makes you feel like you’re actually part of a small group of friends just chatting. Let me give you another example:
“How do you feel about helicopters?”
There was a long pause. “How do you mean? Ethically?”
“As a mode of transportation.”
“Faster than camels, but less sustainable.”
And these two examples are actually great for describing the mood of he book. Maggie Stiefvater manages to create an atmosphere that is often eerie, supernatural and threatening even, but the characters, like most teenagers would, make light of it, even though they’re actually scared.
And this brings me to the characters. Blue was actually my least favourite character, because she really is a bit of a cliché: the quirky kid who makes her own clothes and keeps to herself, because of her unusual background. The one thing I will say for her is how I really liked that she’s just so down to earth and doesn’t ask many questions: ‘Oh, so we’re looking for a dead Welsh king? Cool. Sure. Let’s go.’ Gansey is described by the others to have two sides to him. One is his outward polite rich-kid side with an ever-charming smile and the other is his inward crazy explorer side, obsessed with ley lines and finding Glendower. I liked that he is the epitome of ‘don’t judge a book by his cover’. Ronan is the perpetually angry and dangerous rich kid, but, as all the boys, he has a trauma of his own he struggles with. He is described as dark and Irish, with a big tattoo covering his back that he got just to piss off his brother. But when he owns a pet baby raven, named Chainsaw, a sweet and nurturing side comes out that he keeps for his friends in crises only. Noah is the smudgy friend, who is very shy, but funny when you least expect it. Like when he explains his looks being due to the fact that he’s been dead for seven years now. Lastly there’s Adam and he’s probably the character I admire most. He’s not rich, but is obsessed almost with not taking any favours from the rich boys. At home, he gets beaten on regularly, but he will not leave unless he has something to show for and is able to walk out of the driveway with his head held high. As you can see, I loved these boys as a group, but I would have to describe them as boys with in general bad coping mechanisms.
Now, let me get to the cliché that this book contains and what turned me off of it at first: the simple girl from a small town falls in love with the rich and mysterious boy. Now I’m not one for this kind of plot. I usually don’t like the rich kid and the strange redemption arch that somehow has to explain why he behaves like an arrogant spoiled little kid. I find it very unrealistic that these boys all have a soft side that opens up once you get to know them, especially if you’re a quirky outsider girl. I grew up in a town filled with mostly rich people and I got bullied a lot because I wasn’t rich: most rich kids simply aren’t that nice. So at first this made me dislike the book, because at the beginning it feels like the book is heading towards that place that millions of books have gone to before. Only Stiefvater doesn’t go there and I loved it! Gansey is the rich kid as we often see him and he has very little idea of the price of things. He cannot understand that Adam won’t take his money or accept his help. In short, he doesn’t understand the value of money, and this makes him annoyingly naïve on the subject. But I expect that Stiefvater has done this on purpose: it’s just one of the things that makes the characters seem less like adults who just happen to still be in school and more like actual teenagers. Also, Blue doesn’t fall in love with this rich kid, and even though there is romance involved in the book, it never becomes a main part of the plot. The plot is finding a dead Welsh king, not ‘to kiss or not to kiss’. Thank you, Maggie Stiefvater!
All in all, this book was not what I expected. For the first hundred pages I thought that the idea was original, but the story could turn out either being boring or really great. The latter is true in my opinion, and the characters have a lot to do with that. The fact that Stiefvater writes teenagers very well, as well as representing poverty in believable manner, does it for me. This is however just the first book in the series and the book does have an ending of sorts, but I’m still left with a lot of question. Literally, the last sentence of the book opens up a whole new realm of possibilities, and I love it. However, a lot is left unexplained and I’m not sure why I should care about certain things: like, why are we looking for this king really? But I want to know more, so now I just need to get my hands on the next three books.
Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover Award: for Gansey and anyone scared of picking up yet another angsty teenager romance novel
Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle #1) (New York City, 2012)