Title: The Raven Boys
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Release Date: September 18th, 2012
Genre(s): YA, Fantasy, Contemporary
Page Count: 416 pages
This isn’t going to be in the form of most of my reviews–in that I’m not going to go down a checklist and recount all the ways in which I enjoyed, or disliked, the plot, the setting, and the characters. The book doesn’t feel like the first entry of a series, but rather the start of something large and looming, so it feels wrong to give a comprehensive breakdown so early on in the journey.
So, instead, I’m going to talk about how the book has surprised me, and highlight some of the excellent writing craft that Maggie Stiefvater displays.
Here’s the thing. The summary blurb for these books are, I think, the most detrimental part about the series. It gives the impression of another YA urban fantasy in which a quirky girl falls headlong into forbidden love with a rich boy. But that can’t be further from the truth. In fact, Blue and the boys barely interact for half of the book. Most of that time is spent laying down the groundwork of non-romantic relationships–the friendship between the raven boys and the strange bonds within Blue’s household.
The prose is not what I’d expected. At all. There’s a languid maturity to it I don’t usually see in this genre, and mostly in adult literary fiction. It’s a sense that Stiefvater knows exactly the kind of story she’s writing and she’s trusting the readers to trust her to get them there eventually, via her terms, however unorthodox that may be. This means that she takes her sweet time to set up the setting, the atmosphere, and the characters. And the payoff (at least, the ones we get in this book) is pretty great.
This is a character-driven story, through and through. Pretty much every element of the story is used to say something about one of the main characters. The most obvious way is through POV shifts. Via alternating POV chapters, we get access to many of the characters thoughts, their fears and doubts; each narrative voice is distinct and compelling.
But what I really find impressive is Stiefvater’s oblique way of developing a character–not from inside their head, but from a distance. Outside-in.
What do I mean by that?
Well, for one, the use of inanimate objects to tell a character’s story. When we interact with our surroundings, we all leave parts of ourselves behind. And I don’t mean those scraps of dry skin that cascade off when you rub against a surface. I mean the small habits, ticks, dislikes, preferences that seep their way into our surroundings. The way we organize our spaces, the decorations that adorn our walls, whether our clothes lie strewn like landmines across our bedroom floors or painstakingly folded in that one specific nook between the dresser and the bed .
They are, each and every one, scattered leavings of our selves.
Stiefvater understands this and incorporates it so very well–it’s in the way she describes Monmouth Manufacturing, Gansey’s car, Adam’s neighbourhood. They all help form the image of a character in ways that dialogue can’t.
Secondly, the constant use of body language and deconstruction of facial expressions to examine characters from a distance–that says something about the characters from a distance.
Every one of these characters are swashed in layers. Some layers you only see when they’re interacting with certain people, some layers don’t emerge at all, and some you only see mere glimpses of in certain instances.
[Gansey’s] bald expression held something new: not the raw delight of finding the ley line or the sly pleasure of teasing Blue. She recognized the strange happiness that came from loving something without knowing why you did, that strange happiness that was sometimes so big that it felt like sadness. It was the way she felt when she looked at the stars.
This isn’t the character deliberately–or even consciously–revealing something about himself. It’s one of his layers getting caught against the protrusion–the insistence, the intensity–of a particular moment and getting peeled back slightly for just for a moment, and another character being at the right place and the right time to peek inside it.
Gansey can think, or say out loud, “I’m so glad we found these ley lines,” and that would be another way to present the same thing. But it’s not as punchy as another character recognizing, and empathizing with, that unadulterated joy in his body language and expression. And the latter is what sticks in your mind.
All in all, this is a wonderful start and I’ll most likely be writing a full thinkpiece on the series when I finish (hopefully within a month!).