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That’s so raven.

October 24, 2012

It’s no secret that I’m a total sucker for YA. If it’s going to make me feel as though I’m 15 again, I’m probably going to read it. (Although there are some exceptions, and most of them involve vampires. And dystopian futures got severely downgraded in the wake of tedious and apparently never-ending Hunger Games fever.)

But if there’s one author who does a stellar job writing about ordinary teenagers in extraordinary circumstances, it’s Maggie Stiefvater. After the huge success of her Shiver trilogy, an understated werewolf love story, Steifvater has produced various inspired riffs on the teenage-supernatural-romance theme, including the Books of Faerie trilogy (still in progress) and The Scorpio Races, a novel about water horses.

Stiefvater’s latest offering, The Raven Boys, is a return to more traditional supernatural territory: ghosts, psychics, and hauntings. The first in a new trilogy, The Raven Boys tells the mysterious tale of 16-year-old Blue, a girl who comes from a family of psychics but possesses no telepathic powers of her own. Blue has always been told that if she kisses her true love, he’ll die; understandably, this is somewhat concerning. But it becomes more so when Blue sees a ghost for the first time—the ghost of a boy named Gansey, a student from the prestigious local school, Aglionby Academy. Blue’s always sworn to stay away from Aglionby students—Raven Boys, as they’re known locally—but when Gansey’s ghost speaks to her, Blue has to rethink her rules.

When it turns out that Gansey is alive and well and on a strange supernatural quest of his own, Blue becomes drawn into the mystery that possesses him and his three friends: Adam, the intense scholarship student desperate to escape his roots; Ronan, the rebellious and angry rich boy; and Noah, the quiet, observant watcher with a secret of his own. As Blue and her Raven Boys begin to investigate the dark heart of their Virginia town, she finds herself, for the first time, having to confront the unsettling prophecy of her fatal first kiss. Who is Blue’s true love? And how will her kiss end his life?

The Raven Boys is vintage Stiefvater. Her prose is elegant and crisp, effortlessly gliding between evocations of Henrietta’s lush and eerie surrounds—a place of corpse roads, ley lines, and enchanted forests—and the complex internal dramas of the novel’s protagonists. While Blue is attracted to Adam and initially writes Gansey off as an arrogant rich boy (she thinks of him as ‘President Cell Phone’) her feelings for him soon begin to shift; and, in the midst of their quest, all four boys face problems of their own, from uncomfortable domestic situations to the awkward flowering of first love.

Unfortunately—and surprisingly—it’s the characters that let the book down. While Blue is an engaging protagonist, and the kind of teenage misfit who never strays into twee caricature, her Raven Boy companions are less convincing. I find it hard to believe that any 16-year-old would be that consumed by a quest to find ley lines; similarly, much of Gansey’s dialogue feels stilted and unnatural: he asks Ronan to ‘queue up the evidence, if you would’, and tells one of Blue’s psychic relatives that he ‘wasn’t trying to insinuate that you were less than genuine’. Of course, Gansey is a formal and proper sort of guy—but, alongside his fixation with finding ley lines, his language makes him come across as 20 years older.

Alongside this, every characters’ obsession with money and class feels tired and overdone. Gansey is embarrassed by his wealth; Blue is affronted by it; Adam is embarrassed by his lack of wealth, and so fixated on not becoming a charity case that he refuses to accept help of any kind, thus making his difficult domestic situation go from bad to worse; the cycle repeats ad nauseam.

Above all, Steifvater’s boys just take themselves too seriously; although perhaps it’s a function of the various secrets they all seem to be keeping. With Blue, what you see is what you get; with the boys, everything worth discovering is hidden beneath the surface. Ultimately, this is what makes The Raven Boys a satisfying and original mystery, weak points notwithstanding: the supernatural puzzle that drives the novel is as engaging as it is creepy, and there’s a fantastic twist in store that I absolutely didn’t see coming.

Predictably, there are hints of a love triangle, and it’s a plot point that’s sure to emerge more fully in the next book. While there’s something inevitable about Blue having her heart torn between not one, but two intelligent, charismatic, and good-looking teenage boys (for the record, this never happened to me when I was 16; actually, it still hasn’t), Stiefvater handles her subject matter with poise. She doesn’t lay the romance on too thick, and nor does she make her narrative intentions blindingly obvious: if there’s one thing TThe Raven Boys isn’t, it’s predictable, and that goes for its romantic element as much as its supernatural plot. Adding to the suspense is the tricky fact that Blue can’t kiss anyone for fear that they’ll drop dead.

I’ll be interested to see where Stiefvater takes her follow up, although I have to admit that I’m not desperate to read it. The Raven Boys isn’t without its flaws, but it’s certainly one of the more original supernatural series on the shelves at the moment; and Steifvater’s writing is more than strong enough to carry the novel’s less-than-stellar aspects.


One Comment leave one →
  1. October 24, 2012 1:22 pm

    I adore you for making a Disney channel reference in your title. Of course, now the “That’s So Raven” theme song is playing on a constant loop in my head…

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