Safe as Life: Complex, Messy Love in The Raven Boys

Having finished reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys 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. I went in suspicious, because the flap copy is truly inadequate to the books these actually are, but within a handful of chapters The Raven Boys had knocked the bottom out of that casual disinterest. As I’ve been saying to everyone whose hands I’ve been able to press these books into for the past few weeks, with a kind of mad joy, “I’m in it now.” There’s a weirdly intense place in my heart that is currently occupied by the complex web of love and devotion and loss that the young folks herein are wrapped up with.

Stiefvater is well-versed in the tropes of young adult fiction and has written a tour de force that illuminates, with careful prose and more careful structure, a set of very real, very damaged, very hopeful characters whose relationships, selves, and world are—fine, they’re utterly fantastic. And it’s not even finished yet. To give a super-brief summation of the reason I am so attached: these five protagonists are all messily in love with each other, and there’s nothing better or more beautiful or sharp, and it’s going to end. From the first, it’s impossible to avoid the knowledge that all of this wonder is finite. It aches to experience. Plus, it’s a meticulously crafted cycle that rewards rereading in heaps; I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. And that’s not to mention the queerness, the attention to women and the development of familial attachments alongside romantic and platonic ones, and the treatment of these young characters as real, whole, intense human beings. The depth and care and detail in their development is absolutely stunning.

But enough gushing; let’s talk books.

The Raven Boys

The Raven Boys is the first of the novels that make up the quartet of The Raven Cycle, with the final book to be released in April of this year. It is, as I described the arc to a fresh-faced friend who had no idea what I was getting her into, the “getting to know each other” book (at least on first-run). Everyone meets; quests are begun; fate starts grinding its cogs on toward the inevitable resolution. The second time through, it was still about first meetings, but also somehow about always-having-met. Stierfavter’s descriptions, the solid and almost-jewel-perfect backbone of the Cycle in terms of character and world alike, are easy to slip past on first read in some sense. They work, and they work well to give you a sense of who these people are.

But the second time, with all the knowledge built in, the smallest of moments and words are layered with a deeper set of meanings. I think on first go-round I was still suspicious of the whole “stay away from boys, because they were trouble … stay away from Aglionby boys, because they were bastards” thing at the beginning, and the “fated love” trope, and all of that. I wasn’t quite taking it seriously, just yet.

Needless to say, that was wrong, and on re-reading I thought my heart would burst with seeing the boys together and apart for the first time, and seeing Blue for the first time: her commitment to being sensible even though she’s about to fall in with a set of very un-sensible things. “Safe as life,” as Gansey is fond of saying. There are asides and clipped bits of dialogue; each relationship between each pair and set and group of these characters is individual and thoroughly realized. I don’t see development like this in the vast majority of books I read, and I appreciate that it builds even more with repetition.

Really, there’s too much to talk about and be brief, because honest to god I could sit around to pick apart and comment on these books for hours, but I’d like to pay attention to some of the things that are specific to The Raven Boys and strike me as unique. Things that make this a book worth beginning, for new readers, folks for whom “trust me, it all builds up so well” isn’t quite enough of a promise.

On some level, I understand that the reaction I have is both critical and personal. Personal because of the realism of Stiefvater’s illustration of what it’s like to be a girl-shaped-human who has fallen in with a pack of private school boys who love each other too much and who have come to love you too. Personal because each of those boys is such a separate human, and for me, identifying with Ronan was instant, lovely, horrible, and above all like looking in a mirror. Each of these kids is damaged, trauma lingering in the creases or out in the open, and each of them needs to learn to grow up and be less of a tire fire… Except I’m willing to bet each reader is going to stick to one harder than the rest, depending on their own anxieties and needs and gender and modes of communicating (or failing to).

Art by @cassandrajp

Art by @cassandrajp

There’s the moment I was sold, too:

But that wasn’t what happened. What happened was they drove to Harry’s and parked the Camaro next to an Audi and a Lexus and Gansey ordered flavors of gelato until the table wouldn’t hold any more bowls and Ronan convinced the staff to turn the overhead speakers up and Blue laughed for the first time at something Gansey said and they were loud and triumphant and kings of Henrietta, because they’d found the ley line and because it was starting, it was starting. (234)

It was here, the halfway point of the novel where all of their separate threads come together, that I lost my breath the first time and thought: all right, then. It’s starting—meaning both their inescapable and honest passion for each other as a group, and the path to loss that it puts them all on. The second time, it rang like a bell; the page before, Gansey observes the group with Blue added and knows it’s right, utterly right, like a lock snapping shut. The reader feels it, too, in the careful choice of words and deeds and expressions for each of these strange handsome creatures.

It’s hard, as a reader, not to fall as instantly and ridiculously in love—to not feel caught up in the pull of it—with each of them, with the pack of them, with the encompassing attraction of it.

Of course, this is just the start.

And then there’s the critical half: the part where I’d like to crow about the delicacy and subtlety Stiefvater manages to imbue her text with while still telling a straightforward quest story with romance and secrets and awkwardness. I felt like I’d been tricked in the most delicious way possible, believing I would be reading some sort of paranormal YA love triangle stuff and ending up with something complex, messy, queer, and sprawling instead. Gender, to come back to it, is one of the strongest points of The Raven Boys: the presence of women in the world of this book, though our fivesome is built up of Blue and her four dudes, is good. Also, the boys’ initial casual and unremarkable sexism is a grounding and realistic touch that I thought added a depth to them as people and to their welcoming of Blue into their world.

Because these are all boys who think they’re smart and together and not total dicks; it takes them being faced with a girl who’s grown up in a world of strong and brilliant woman to knock them down a peg on some of their blindness and privilege. It’s possible, after all, to be fond of women and girls and to believe one is an ally—while also living in an echo chamber of teenage masculinity that lets a lot of things pass unnoticed. Wrapping all of that up in a few lines of dialogue and gestures? That’s damn fine writing.

Art by @xla-hainex

Art by @xla-hainex

Gender is also significant in that Ronan, Gansey, Adam, and Noah are all developed with care, specifics, and attention to their different sorts of masculinity. This is going to sound strange, but: I often find that male characters aren’t well realized in some types of romantic plots, as if it’s impossible to be loved and be real at the same time. As a genderqueer human, I get frustrated in both directions; boys should be real, too. Stiefvater neatly avoids that problem by being clear that this is about love, but it’s about complex messy love with different shapes, tones, and types—including and especially between the boys themselves. It’s about being real more than being ideal, and in this book, everyone’s still trying to figure that out about each other. The relationships are the thing that makes The Raven Boys, and the Cycle as a whole, spectacular. Scenes like Gansey finding Ronan in the church, afraid he’s attempted to kill himself again, are so important; also small things, like the lines

Gansey had once told Adam that he was afraid most people didn’t know how to handle Ronan. What he meant by this was that he was worried that one day someone would fall on Ronan and cut themselves.

It’s a thousand careful details that make these folks all so, so real.

They’ve got families; they’ve got trauma; they’ve got school and work; they’ve got money or not. They’ve got panic attacks and fear of mortality and fear of each other’s mortality. It’s brutally intense on an emotional level sometimes, and that’s the reason I think it’s worth pursuing—this book is just the start, the moment where it all starts rolling. There’s still so much more. I’m boggled at how much I feel like I’ve experienced in the course of four-hundred pages; it contains so much on both direct and implicit levels. Stiefvater is king of making a few careful words do the work of a whole paragraph, or more.

This also applies to class, one of the central concerns of the series: Blue and Adam come from Virginia poverty, in different ways, while Ronan and Gansey are stunningly wealthy. Adam—as well as Blue—has a complex relationship to the power of money and the stamp of class in society; neither lets their friends do things on their behalf. Adam desperately and jealously wants to outrun it and make himself one of those golden boys, while Blue is more baffled by it, though also wounded by the impossibility of her dreams of going to a good school for environmental science. These are, again, not “issues” in the book—they’re just the real color of the world.

Art by Nyssa

Art by @norhuu

The plot is compelling, too, though far more direct and simpler than the huge emotional web that drives it all. Noah Czerny is charming and tragic; the scene at his abandoned car with its Blink-182 stickers and aftermarket effects covered in seven years of debris (“murdered” and “remembered”) is chilling. The fact of his being dead but lingering isn’t just a party trick; it’s a very real thing with rules, consequences, and it isn’t cute or pleasant. Once Blue arrives in their lives and the one-year clock starts ticking down, everything is going too fast and too slow, a pleasure so intense it’s a pain. But it also includes adults, adversaries, and the world outside of their pack—something that makes the action feel reasonable and the world like a real one too.

And did I mention the fucking prose? Because we’re going to get back to that, I promise. Next time, for The Dream Thieves: the book where it all starts to get far more explicitly big-time queer, and I have a lot of personal feelings about everything that happens.

Our analysis of the Raven Cycle continues with the Queer Experience in The Dreams Thieves and Female Relationships in Blue Lily, Lily Blue.

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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