Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys came at the recommendation of the very friendly girl at my local favorite children’s bookstore. To be honest, I don’t really remember what she said when she recommended it, and at the time, I bought another book instead, and let me tell you, that was a mistake and I have some regrets. It’s my first five star rating of 2014. Because it was definitely one of the most interesting and page-turning books I’ve read. Spoilers to follow…
To start, Blue Sargent’s mother Maura is a psychic, who runs a business out of their home, which they share with Maura’s other psychic friends (Calla, Persephone, Orla, and newcomer half-aunt Neeve). Though Blue herself has no psychic gift whatsoever, she does have the natural ability to make psychic energy stronger. It makes her useful for her mother’s readings, and it means that she goes along as an assistant on the yearly visits to the local church graveyard, to catalog the souls appearing on St. Mark’s Day. Souls appearing along the corpse road are slated to die within the year, so it’s alarming when non-sighted Blue sees her first soul on the road. Her half-aunt informs her there are only two reasons someone without the sight would see someone on the road: either this soon-to-be-dead boy is Blue’s true love, or Blue is going to have him killed. (Think that over the next time you see a lost ghost.) This, combined with the consistent readings of which Blue’s been on the receiving end (claiming that if Blue is to kiss her true love, he’ll die), is painting a pretty grim picture of Blue’s love life.
But just because there’s a doomed romance theoretically in the works, this isn’t really a love story. Let’s first introduce the characters: Gansey, the boy Blue is fated to love, kill, or possibly both, a rich kid at prestigious prep school Aglionby. Blue and Gansey meet officially (as in, in person, and he’s not a wandering soul) as he’s trying to set her up with his friend Adam Parrish, a scholarship kid with a chip on his shoulder about being a scholarship kid. Rounding out this Aglionby group are troubled troublemaker Ronan Lynch, and roommate Noah, a boy that even Gansey refers to as “smudgy.” The four boys (and later, Blue, on an awkward date invitation from Adam) are on a quest to find the sleeping king Glendower, who will grant a favor if found. This search for the ley lines (or energy roads) has been consuming Gansey ever since he nearly died seven years ago, and he’s been slowly pulling the other boys into his quest. To their credit, rather than being skeptics that need slow convincing, everyone believes fully from the get-go, no questions asked. It really moves things along.
In between the search to awaken a long missing and presumed dead Welsh king to be granted a mystical favor, the boys also have to deal with modern day troubles: Ronan, whose father was brutally killed by a tire iron in his own driveway (Ronan found the body), is always on the verge of being kicked out of school, with Gansey there to offer bribes on his behalf, beg and plead to get him to class, and coach him through finals. Ronan is also constantly in battle (sometimes literally – the boy is a time bomb) with his older brother Declan, who thinks Ronan needs to conduct himself better, but who also likes to use Gansey and Adam as talk pieces to get girls to sleep with him. (It’s implied this is repeated behavior. In short, Declan’s a douchebag, and if I was Ronan, I’d punch him in the parking lot of a pizza place, too.) Gansey and Ronan live off-campus with smudgy Noah, who is rather bland, and seems to say things that just happen to be funny. He’s also really devoted, in the style of a puppy, to Blue, and enjoys petting her hair spikes. (Lest you’re thinking that every boy is somehow in love with Blue, Gansey does not seem romantically inclined, and Ronan just doesn’t like her at all. Ronan doesn’t seem to like anyone at all.)
While we get to see expanded versions of the boys, and we get to see expanded versions of the various seers living in Blue’s house (there is flighty owner of a weird tarot deck Persephone, sassy tarot reader and psychometrist Calla, loving mother and awful disciplinarian Maura, oft-admired Orla, and strange half-aunt Neeve, who is legitimately famous but is wholly invested in investigating dark goings-on), but we never, sadly, really get an essence of Blue Sargent. What is her deal? You’d expect her to be either wholly invested in the world of psychics and jealous that she has no gift (but she’s not), or to go the opposite and be scornful and even skeptic of what happens at the home of psychics at 300 Fox Way (but she’s not). She believes in it, she finds it interesting, she doesn’t particularly want to be a part of it, and in essence she’s something of a blank slate. I don’t know what she wants. I don’t think she knows what she wants. She wants to solve the mystery of why Neeve is visiting, but once she does (Neeve is searching for Blue’s missing father, at Maura’s behest), she’s not particularly interested in the actual mystery of her father.
In fairness, she’s a little distracted. With her knowledge of corpse roads, and the annual parade of soon-to-be-passed souls, Blue helps the boys find the ley line in Virginia. I wish I could be more clear on the whole subject of ley lines, but it went a bit over my head; suffice to say, it is a classic quest of some sort, some line of powerful but dormant energy that screws up your phones, makes electromagnetic readers go nuts, and eventually leads to a small and magical wood where time has no meaning, the trees talk (but in Latin), and if you find the right stump, you can see a vision of the future. So the fivesome find this magical place, called Cabeswater, and the next step to finding the dead king dude is to make a sacrifice. But Gansey gets a call from his professor friend in England, who tells a delightful tale of going into a similar energy field with a friend, only to have that friend literally walk out of his own skin. Sacrifices are serious business, yo. Gansey decides to hold off any further investigating.
Adam, meanwhile, has just walked out of his childhood home after his father beats him hard enough that he loses the hearing in his left ear. Given that Adam and Ronan don’t much care for each other most of the time, the entire scene is a testament to how much both boys care for Gansey. Ronan somehow instinctively knows this time dropping Adam off will be different (and violent), and doubles back to the double-wide to save Adam from Mr. Parrish with his fists. He knows full well that he will likely get expelled from school, but also knows how long Gansey has been trying to convince Adam to leave the trailer of his own accord. Adam, meanwhile, knows how hard Gansey’s been trying to keep Ronan at Aglionby, and knows that he’ll be expelled. So Adam does what he hasn’t been able to do up until now, and presses charges against his father. Now he has no home to return to, has temporarily moved in with Gansey, Ronan, and Noah, and feels his principles are compromised. For the duration of their friendship, silver-spoon-in-his-mouth Gansey has been almost reckless with his money, a sore point with Adam, though not so much so as Gansey’s well-meaning attempts to buy Adam’s freedom from his family (repeated offerings that Adam can come live in the warehouse loft), which Adam doesn’t want because he feel it’s nothing he’s earned for himself. Now, feeling indebted to Gansey against his will, Adam rashly decides to go alone to Cabeswater to make the appropriate sacrifice to the ley line (himself) to awaken it and move the quest forward.
So a quick recap, because it’s not easy: Adam is interested in Blue, Blue is interested in Adam but is fated to either love or kill Gansey, or love and kill Gansey. Ronan has a pet baby raven, for no discernible reason. At least one person is dead. The boys’ Latin teacher Barrington Whelk is trying to also uncover Glendower and get his mystical favor (probably to change his name to anything but Barrington Whelk). He tries to murder at least three people. The last fifty pages or so are nonstop action layered on top of nonstop action, with a kidnapping, a reverse kidnapping, a possibly accidental homicide, a funeral (but not for the homicide victim), a disappearance into the magical ether (which may be an okay place or may be full of demons, no one seems to know), an earthquake (in Virginia), and a stampede of magical creatures. If this post seems all over the place, and I know it does, I apologize. It turned out to be immensely difficult to organize my thoughts on the book, largely because there wasn’t a dull moment in the thing. It was always interesting and never what I expected, selling itself as a doomed romance but being about a quest, without a single kiss or even some hopeless longing. It is, of course, the first in a series (of four), because I never seem to pick up anything that doesn’t require extended further reading, but the loose threads at the end never actually feel that loose. So congratulations, bookstore girl, for being one hundred percent right.