Monday, July 07, 2014

"The Raven Boys," by Maggie Stiefvater

The Protagonist: Blue Sargent. A non-psychic in a family of gifted seers, her own gift is the ability to amplify already-existing magic.
Angst: When some rich white dudes want to find a sleeping Welsh king, she sees an opportunity to be an active participant in an adventure instead of a passive supporter.

The Secondary Cast:

Gansey: It's tough out there for a rich white dude. Hopefully, finding this dead rich white dude with magical powers will finally make people take me seriously. If you need me, I'll be sulking about how unfair life is in the renovated factory I bought and turned into my own personal Batcave.

Ronan: Grrr! Ronan angry! Ronan mean! Ronan miss his dead dad! Feelings scare Ronan! LOVE RONAN!

Noah: I am shy and quiet and I pet people's hair and this makes me endearing for some reason.

Adam: I'm the Poor One. But I work hard! And I don't take any charity! I ... you gonna eat that? No?

Angst Checklist:

  • Magic
  • Poverty
  • Child Abuse
  • Being Dead
  • Daddy Issues
  • Whiny Rich People
  • Ravens
  • Aunts who are Weird in a Good Way
  • Aunts who are Weird in a Bad Way

The Word: I didn't like this novel.

Let's just get this out of the way. I realize this novel and its characters (*cough* its male characters) are beloved in the YA blogging community in general, but me? I just didn't get it.

Our protagonist (sort of...) is Blue, a non-psychic from a family of psychics whose main source of income comes from dropping Cryptic Hints That Prove Relevant to the Plot Later On - which becomes pretty convenient as the book continues. Is it bad character development if they're written as people who spout random dialogue and have no background or motivation?

Anyway, Blue's helping her visiting aunt Neeve in a ritual to identify people who are going to die in the next year in an old graveyard (as one does), when she spots the future ghost of a boy wearing the uniform of the nearby Aglionby prep school. Blue's never been able to see ghosts (past or future) before, and Neeve tells her this means she might be the one who kills him. Or he might be her true love. So easy to get those two confused. The future ghost identifies himself only as Gansey.

Meanwhile, the actual Gansey turns up in the next scene, and he and his Raven Boys (nicknamed so by the resentful town for the raven emblem of their school) are searching for an ancient Welsh king who's buried somewhere in Virginia because hey we're all white dudes and crazy rich (except for the Not Rich One), so why not?

They're set up a bit like a boy band, where every Raven Boy gets his own accessories (relevant female protagonist sold separately). You have Batman With Parents (Gansey), Tim Riggins (Ronan), Pigpen (Noah), and The Not Rich One Who's Slightly More Interesting (Adam). Fate (or convenient plotting) has them meet up with Blue and her Phenomenal Not-Psychic Powers and they all jump into the Mystery Machine Gansey's broken-down Camaro because ancient Welsh kings aren't going to wake themselves.

There are a lot of interesting ideas in this book - too many, which is my main problem with The Raven Boys. Hear me out. There's so much Deeply Important Magical Nonsense crammed into this one book that it was impossible to stay interested or invested in any of it. Alfred Hitchcock once explained the concept of the MacGuffin: the MacGuffin is something that matters very deeply to the characters of a fictional narrative and very little to those reading or watching that narrative. We, the reader, care about the MacGuffin when we start to care about the characters who are pursuing it.

The Welsh King is The Raven Boys' boring-ass, meaningless MacGuffin because, in a novel stuffed with dream thieves, psychic hotlines, aunts who might be evil (on a good day?), magic mirrors, corpse roads, secret ghosts, mysterious father murders, grape juice scrying and baby animals, there is precious little time spent developing the actual characters, much less their gossamer-thin reasons for caring about a mythical wish-granting European monarch.

The characters are defined by one or two attributes apiece, cherry-picked for their YA-lit popularity - Ronan is Angry (and hot) because of his father's mysterious death. Adam is Independent (and hot) because he refuses to take his friends' charity to leave his abusive father. He Will Live Life on His Own Terms and Without Handouts - unless you're a magical wish-granting king. Then it's totally cool. Handout away!

The author tries - there are some marvellously insightful passages here and there, in between the untidy heaps of supernatural window dressing. But there's simply not enough.

And then there's Gansey. This privileged little asshole is the "hero" of our story and the one "destined" for Blue. He really is Batman with Parents - all the wealthy ego-stroking manipulativeness, none of the understanding of real-world misery. He lives in his own refurbished factory/Batcave. He decides to call Blue "Jane" because her real name is weird, but throws a stink eye at anyone who calls him by his real name (Dick, appropriately enough).

He's dedicated his life (and the lives of his friends) to finding this Welsh King because his amazing wealth and privilege is such a horrific burden to his dreams of being The Specialest Snowflake. It's so much harder to be recognized as a brilliant individual when you're busy tripping over all your daddy's money. He drives an old, beloved, broken-down Camaro to show you that he's deep - unless the road is rocky, in which case he'll just fly his sister's helicopter (for reals). If only his life could be more like Adam's, then people would value his accomplishments and his life would have meaning. Yes - Adam, who works three jobs while getting daily beatings from his trailer-trash father.

Why the hell should I give a shit if Gansey finds that damn Welsh King or not? You see what I mean about MacGuffins?

And don't even get me started on Blue. Seriously, don't - because I shut the book with only the haziest of impressions of her character. She was - nice. I guess. Didn't get in the way too much. She and Adam were cute but she's "obviously destined" for Gansey.

Honestly, if the contents of this book had been stretched out over a trilogy, with enough character development and build-up and layers and interaction in between, The Raven Boys could have been as good as the Fionavar Tapestry. The book's well-written and cobbles together an interesting mythology. As it was, I was overwhelmed by the fantasy aspects and underwhelmed by the human ones.


  1. Amanda1:01 PM

    This is an amazing review. I did enjoy the Raven Boys, but at the same time I agree with all your points. I love your points about Gansey.

  2. Anonymous11:54 AM

    I wonder what you think now since it's like four books and another spin-off.