Kin and Kind in Maggie Stiefvater’s Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Continuing from the last installment. Having finished reading Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle for the second time in the course of a month—and if we’re being honest, I think it was less than a month—I feel like it’s high time for me to write about the experience. Because I loved it. I mean, I loved it.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue, the third novel of The Raven Cycle, is in many ways a book about women—mothers, sisters, cousins, family, kin—and the structures of their lives, including men or not, love or not, each other or not. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the (immensely satisfying and beautifully realized) treatment of masculinity in The Dream Thieves. It also means—buckle up folks—that the thing I’ve been chomping at the bit to talk about but haven’t fit in as much during the past two sections of this essay is about to be the focus: Blue Sargent, mirror and amplifier and linchpin, a ferocious and delightful young woman who’s attempting to give as good as she gets for her raven boys and her family. And then some.

While there’s a strong argument to be made for these novels having four protagonists—Blue, Ronan, Adam, Gansey—and a few more point-of-view characters besides, there’s also little doubt that Blue is the one who ties it all together, the girl at the center of the room (though she often doesn’t feel like it). In a lesser execution of this sort of plot, it would be like a reverse harem-anime: one girl, four dudes, romantic entanglements abound, et cetera.

But as discussed in the previous sections, this is not that—it is the furthest from that it could be, and the fivesome are all balanced against and with each other in a tight-knit web of affection, need, and almost-bottomless adoration. It’s a big pile of humans, and that becomes more and more clear in Blue Lily, Lily Blue. When Orla, Blue’s older cousin, is attempting to intervene in her relationships to save her a little heartbreak, it leads Blue to admit something to herself that shapes the rest of the book, and retroactively the books that came before it:

“You can just be friends with people, you know,” Orla said. “I think it’s crazy how you’re in love with all those raven boys.”

Orla wasn’t wrong, of course. But what she didn’t realize about Blue and her boys was that they were all in love with one another. She was no less obsessed with them than they were with her, or one another, analyzing every conversation and gesture, drawing out every joke into a longer and longer running gag, spending each moment either with one another or thinking about when next they would be with one another. Blue was perfectly aware that it was possible to have a friendship that wasn’t all-encompassing, that wasn’t blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening. It was just that now that she’d had this kind, she didn’t want the other.

Stiefvater is also careful to realize this in the text: each section and part and pair of the group has a different dynamic, as discussed before, and none of these are given less passion or interest than the others. Noah’s relationship with Blue—affectionate and tinged with sorrow—is complicated by the fact that her energy magnifies him, including the parts of him that are becoming ever-less-human. Gansey’s relationship with Blue is made up of not-kisses and holding each other and the sharp claws of preemptive grief that dig into her guts when she looks at him, but it’s also about seeing each other as strange magnificent unique creatures. Blue and Adam have had their ugly go-rounds but are working back to something else; Ronan and Blue are too, too alike in their wit and razorblade edges.

And then there are the three and moresomes, Adam-Gansey-Ronan for one. It’s all so complex and complexly realized, and Blue knows that: knows that this is all she wants, all she needs, even if it can’t last and the knowledge that it’s going to end is tearing her apart. This becomes especially prescient after Persephone’s death: without fanfare, without buildup, just sudden and unexpected and final. But we’ll come back to the rest of them, because Blue is the centerpiece of this book, and I want to think about her in a little more depth.

Art by @juliaere

Art by @juliaere

While the first book is about meetings and being the young charming kings of Henrietta, and the second book is about deepening those relationships and falling into a hell of a lot of trouble, this third installment is in many ways a book about growing up. Or, if not growing up, growing into oneself and the world one is destined for or striving towards. Each person is becoming something more, while the others watch; or, in the case of Noah, becoming less while the other fear for him. (Noah is the pop-punk ghost of my heart, ps.)

Blue, in particular, does a lot of growing in this book. She comes to understand herself and her raven boys in far more depth and honesty than she ever has before—and she also has to care for herself more with her mother gone and her household in disarray. Blue has always been close with Maura; this is not the sort of book where parents are insignificant. And now Maura has left—left her daughter, her friends, her lover Mr. Gray—with no warning. Colin Greenmantle is breathing down their necks, ready to burn their lives down around them if he isn’t satisfied with getting the Greywarren while his much more dangerous wife Piper sets out to find the third sleeper (the one who shouldn’t be woken).

It’s also becoming clear that these five are, actually, something more in terms of magic or destiny. Blue has always felt herself to just be a useful tool—a magnifier, but nothing special herself—until she meets Gwenllian, the entombed daughter of Glendower whom they wake. Gwenllian is a “mirror,” in magical terms, and tells Blue that she is too: she’s a witch, a mirror, a powerful woman. (Malory, too, the aged professor who has a service dog to help deal with anxiety, sees Blue’s aura as specifically magical.) It’s also notable that Gwenllian has a frantic, sharp-edged distaste for men; she is quite clearly a firm believer in women being for women and having each other’s back against the war-whispers and treachery of the men around them.

It isn’t so far from Blue herself, teaching Adam about the reason she hates when old men tell her she has nice legs—even if he doesn’t understand why she’s mad, at first. She’s been raised in a world of women, and now is a friend only to these boys, these young men she adores; however, in this book, she also branches out to hold those women more closely to herself. Losing her mother has made her appreciate the kinship of 300 Fox Way more, in some sense, and to become more of an independent creature on her own.

She has her own dreams and is, ultimately, coming into her own power—and her own right to love freely, love wildly, without giving her principles away in the process. She doesn’t take any shit, but that’s not a quirky personality trope. She has no patience for bullshit, no patience for meaningless things when there’s more important work to be done on the horizon; she also has an endless capacity for wit and creativity and sorrow. She’s a rich young woman, rich in love though not money, fighting to make a place for herself. She mirrors Adam in some regards, in terms of class and survival; she mirrors Ronan in others, in terms of her fierceness; she and Gansey share the kind of intensity that lets him teach her wordlessly to drive the Pig up and down an empty road all night.

She’s a linchpin. She’s a mirror. She’s got a switchblade and a lot of determination and the fear, aching at the core of her, that it’s all going to fall apart. But she’s going to do her level best, regardless, and isn’t going to give up or give in: not to fate, not to rules, not to patriarchy. She’s a girl after my own heart, and this is her book—appropriately, a book about growing and becoming a more magnified, specific version of oneself. The insights Stiefvater drops in through her characters about the process of suddenly finding oneself to be an adult are also sharp and perfect. I felt, at the close of this book, much like Adam and the others have throughout it: that somehow when they weren’t looking, “starting” to happen became “happened”—and they’re no longer older children but young adults, on the cusp of something magnificent or horrible.

Adam and Ronan’s relationship also develops significantly and intensely in Blue Lily, Lily Blue. While it has always been an understated but real connection—one of the first asides we get in The Raven Boys is about them being scabbed from dragging each other on a moving dolly behind the BMW; they share a rough-and-ready bond that is different from the love either of them feels for Gansey—it has evolved sharply over a very short period of time, in part because of two things. The first is that Ronan admits to himself his secret at the end of The Dream Thieves (being, he is attracted to men and in particular is attracted to Adam Parrish) and the second being that Adam is coming into his own as Cabeswater’s magician, as a man, as a human who is knowing himself more and more truly and with confidence.

Art by @cloven

Art by @cloven

Also, he has realized that Ronan is attracted to him and doesn’t mind one little bit. It’s a maddening, quickening slow build of a relationship that has its bedrock in their love for their friends, their friendship with each other, and their prickly roughness. It’s about respect. I have a particular appreciation for finally seeing them interact with each other separate from the group, also: Ronan visiting Adam at the mechanic’s shop to gift him hand crème, Ronan taking Adam to The Barns to show him how he’s been trying to wake his father’s dream creatures, Ronan dreaming him a mixtape for his car, Ronan pushing him in a shopping cart and wrecking it so they’re in a slightly-bloody pile together. Adam letting Ronan sleep in his room above the church (as we find out when Gansey shows up in his pajamas there one night and Adam is, briefly and tellingly, surprised it isn’t Ronan).

They also plot and execute Greenmantle’s downfall via blackmail together, which involves a spectacularly complex scene in the church. Adam has asked Ronan to dream up a lie: to frame Greenmantle using dreamed evidence for a series of grisly murders. Ronan doesn’t want to, because he’s not a liar, but Adam convinces him—and it doesn’t go well. But it also leads to one of the most stunning lines of Adam reflecting on Ronan in the series, the simple aside: “It was possible that there were two gods in this church.”

It’s all the small thousand scenes we’ve missed between them before, or had hinted at, suddenly on screen to show us the care Ronan takes with Adam—the care Adam is beginning to be able to allow him to take. Because Adam, partly due to Ronan’s specific brand of aggressive and unspoken affection, has begun to realize that his previous insistence on his own bootstraps was foolishness. This is Adam’s greatest growth, as shown ultimately in the moment where Gansey and Ronan show up to the courthouse at his father’s hearing to stand behind him:

Was it okay? Adam had turned down so many offers of help from Gansey. Money for school, money for food, money for rent. Pity and charity, Adam had thought. For so long, he’d wanted Gansey to see him as an equal, but it was possible that all this time, the only person who needed to see that was Adam.

Now he could see that it wasn’t charity Gansey was offering. It was just truth.

And something else: friendship of the unshakable kind. Friendship you could swear on. That could be busted nearly to breaking and come back stronger than before.

Adam help out his right hand, and Gansey clasped it in a handshake, like they were men, because they were men.

It is this growth—Adam coming into his own as a powerful magician and holder of the ley line, Adam about to graduate under his own power from Aglionby, Adam being there for his friends—that allows the group to begin to succeed at their quest. It is his effort to repair his friendship with Blue that saves his life, with Noah’s help too, in the scrying mishap that reveals Maura’s location; it is his mentorship under Persephone that gives him the skillset to act on his instincts. He’s not trying to be Adam Parrish, unknowable army of one, but Adam Parrish, part of a friend- and kin-group. It’s beautiful, really. And it pays off, in the climax, as they’re charting the cave system, pairing he and Ronan’s gifts to make the way easier: “This was their job, Adam realized. This was what they had to offer: making it safe for the others. That was what they had promised: to be Gansey’s magicians.”

Also, Adam knows that Gansey is the one fated to die; Ronan doesn’t. Blue does. She and Adam have bonded again over their love for that impossible boy-king and their desire to save his life at all costs. If anything is going to save any one of them, it’s love, and watching that deepen is stunning. He also notes, tellingly, “It was amazing she and Ronan didn’t get along better, because they were different brands of the same impossible stuff.” (I’m unsure if Adam is aware of the implication here, but the reader has a hard time missing it: Adam has a type, indeed.)

He’s also not quite right about Blue and Ronan, whose friendship is also more developed here in fits and starts. It’s true that Stiefvater parallels them a great deal, but in doing so, she makes it clear that what it’s possible for them to have together is no less intense than what they share with the others. At the scene in the cave, when it’s Blue and Ronan alone, she realizes that he loves her just as true as he does the other boys; it’s heartbreaking and handsome.

This all, of course, makes the knowledge that Gansey is fated for death before the year’s out the most horrifying and hard-edged thing in the series. This quickening, maddening love is the strongest these folks might ever feel, and it’s currently rather doomed. Blue and Gansey have fallen hard for each other; they’ve also fallen hard for their boys, their loved ones, their family as built together, and in the close of the cycle, some of that is bound to fall apart.

BlueLily-coverNoah, for one, has been deteriorating steadily and violently into something less human and more ghostly as the cycle goes on. I worry for his continuing existence; I worry, also, for Gansey—the boy weighed down under his kingship, the role he’s slipping into without knowing, the unseated in time feeling he lives with, his panic attacks and his fierce love and his fiercer terror. The pair of them are a fascinating duet, a little song of life and death all bound up in each other.

And I expect, to be honest, that we’re going to lose one—if not both. Three is a powerful number, after all. I’d rather it be five at the end, but I’m afraid it might be three: Gansey’s magicians and his mirror, alone after it all.

Safe as life.

We’ll find out, in another two months. The Cycle will close, and all of these rich tumultuous young lives will turn out how they turn out: I ache for them, for the intensity and the loss of this, for the passion and connection these five delightful humans have to each other and the life they’ve built. I ache for Blue wanting to go away to a college she can’t afford; I ache for Noah being murdered and dead and deteriorating; I ache for Gansey’s hollowness; I ache for Adam’s hard growing; I ache for Ronan’s neutron-star density of love and devotion that he can’t speak out.

But, as with the fivesome, there’s love also—always and also.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

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