Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told she’d kill her true love.
With these haunting words Maggie Stiefvater, author of the Shiver trilogy and The Scorpio Races, launches a new four book series initially set in the mysterious wilds of Virginia.
Blue Sargent comes from a family of seers, psychics, and mediums. Though she’s not particularly gifted in her own right, her mere presence seems to help amplify the abilities of her sprawling, eccentric family. Impressed from her childhood with the sure knowledge that her kiss will doom her true love, she’s sworn off love forever, with all the confidence and surety only a teenager can make. But now she’s sixteen, and she’s been informed that this is the year she’ll fall in love.
It’s April 24—St. Mark’s Eve—and Blue joins family friend Neeve in standing vigil outside of an old church, where they wait to see who will walk the ancient roads of the dead on that night. In this fashion, it’s possible to know who will die in the year to come. This year, a spirit actually talks to Blue. His name is Gansey.
“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve, Blue. Either you’re his true love…or you killed him.”
And so Blue is slowly, inexorably, inexplicably entangled in the enigmatic affairs of Richard Gansey, a student at the Aglionby Academy, a nearby exclusive all-boys prep school. Gansey, troubled and obsessed with ley lines, is determined to uncover the long-hidden resting place of Owen Glendower, an ancient Welsh king supposedly buried somewhere in the area. Gansey, who collects friends as strange and mercurial as he is. Gansey, who annoys the heck out of Blue because he’s rich, arrogant, careless, and a mystery to be solved.
And despite herself, Blue is sucked into Gansey’s circle of friends, meeting the loyal-yet-conflicted Adam, the fierce Ronan, and the taciturn Noah. Pooling their resources, they just might be able to unravel a mystery which has haunted the area for centuries. For, it is said, whoever finds Owen Glendower and wakes him will be granted a favor of immense potential. But someone else is also searching for the sleeping king, and their motives are nowhere near as pure.
More than anything, the journal wanted. It wanted more than it could hold, more than words could describe, more than diagrams could illustrate. Longing burst from the pages, in every frantic line and every hectic sketch and every dark-printed definition. There was something pained and melancholy about it.
Stiefvater writes with a complex beauty, her words full of meaning and her descriptions rich with potential and vibrant life. Right from the start, this story circles around you three times before sucking you in to an oddly poetic tale of magic and desire, passion and longing. The plot moves with a slow grace, gradually building a world exactly like our own but laced with extra mystery, reminiscent of the magic realists and early urban fantasists. Instead of the in-your-face fantasy of much of today’s work, this hearkens back to the Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, or Pamela Dean of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, where the supernatural feels genuinely weird, a little upsetting, and entirely seductive.
Even the most blatant elements—psychic predictions, ley lines, a mysterious otherworld, ghosts—feel like subtle intrusions into the quiet setting of the fictional-yet-believable town of Henrietta, Virginia. (Reviewer’s note: I live in Virginia, and Stiefvater’s portrayal of Henrietta rang true to me.)
To say that I fell in love with the writing might be an understatement. In a word, it’s elegant. In two words, it’s freaking awesome. Stiefvater balances between the necessity of telling a story, and the indulgence of making it a pretty story, in a way that’s pretty hard to accomplish. Go too far either way, and you’re liable to be accused of being bland or pretentious. And while I’m perfectly happy with the easily-accessible writing most YA authors settle for, it’s nice to occasionally delve into a book that practically dances with your senses.
There’s something almost gleefully bizarre about tracking down ley lines in order to find the long-lost resting place of a legendary Welsh king in Virginia, but it works under the circumstances. It’s the sort of concept which requires a careful touch if it’s to be taken seriously.
There’s also something about the motley collection of broken, unpredictable, darkly likeable individuals which makes up the core of this book. They’re described in such exquisite manner, and given such a measure of life, that it’s almost possible to forgive the cast for being, well…whitebread. There’s a sad lack of diversity in the core cast, which seems surprising given that even exclusive prep schools and small towns in Virginia have plenty of potential for an interesting mix of races and ethnicities. It’s the sort of flaw I’m almost loathe to point out, but it can’t be ignored. Though, I will admit that this is a magnificent description:
One was smudgy…with a rumpled, faded look about his person, like his body had been laundered too many times. The one who’d hit the light was handsome and his head was shaved; a soldier in a war where the enemy was everyone else. And the third was—elegant. It was not the right word for him, but it was close. He was fine-boned and a little fragile-looking, with blue eyes pretty enough for a girl.
Ronan and Declan Lynch were undeniably brothers, with the same dark brown hair and sharp nose, but Declan was solid where Ronan was brittle. Declan’s wide jaw and smile said Vote for me while Ronan’s buzzed head and thin mouth warned that this species was poisonous.
Now, oddly enough for a book where part of the underlying premise involves the main character and her inevitably doomed love, there’s actually a distinct lack of romance. Several of the characters play at attraction and relationships—Ronan’s brother Declan goes through a series of casual girlfriends, according to the text—and Adam, Blue, and Gansey manage to form a bit of a love triangle, but it’s all rather chaste and low-key. It’s refreshing, in a way, to find a YA book where characters don’t fall in immediate, all-consuming, passionately forbidden love, but it’s another incongruity under the circumstances. One expects that things will have a chance to heat up later in the series…assuming Blue doesn’t fend them all off with a stick rather than accidentally kill someone with a kiss. In a way, this is actually a boys’ adventure, with Blue as an honorary boy. (I’m pretty sure that might even be stated in the text somewhere, but I can’t quite find the right passage.) The Famous Five would be proud! Blue is stubborn, independent, resourceful, and capable of holding her own, so she never gets lost in the shuffle, for all that she’s one of the guys.
So then. Despite some imperfections, and I’ll let others debate what they mean for the book as a whole, I have to give The Raven Boys some pretty high marks. Beautiful writing, memorable characters, witty banter, an intriguing plot, and some fascinating twists all combine to make this a tale worth checking out.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf. He is the editor of the forthcoming Scheherazade’s Facade anthology.