No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

2016/34: The Raven Boys -- Maggie Stiefvater

With the words 'ley line' spoken aloud, a memory was conjured: [he was] in a dense wood, sweat collected on his upper lip. He was seventeen and shivering. Every time his heart beat, red lines streaked in the corners of his vision, the trees darkening with his pulse. It made the leaves seem like they were all moving, though there was no wind. [His friend] was on the ground. Not dead, but dying.[loc. 907]

The Raven Quartet is built on a bed of fairytale tropes ('once upon a time there was a girl who would kill her true love if she kissed him'; 'once upon a time there was a boy who was given a second chance') but it's far from a fairytale aesthetic.

Blue Sargent is the daughter of the town psychic, and has grown up knowing that she'll kill her true love if / when she kisses him. For this reason she has abjured love and boys, especially 'raven boys' -- pupils at the exclusive Aglionby Academy. Blue herself has no psychic powers, but the women she grew up with (her mother Maura, plus Calla and Persephone) most definitely do have power, and Blue acts as an amplifier. This brings her to a ruined church and a vigil for the spirits of those who will die in the year ahead -- and Blue sees her first spirit.

Turns out it's a Raven Boy: the couth and handsome Richard Gansey III (known as just Gansey). He and his friends, Adam and Ronan and Noah, at first seem like typical Aglionby pupils: rich, privileged, arrogant and loud. But as Blue gets to know them better (and vice versa) their personalities emerge. Adam is far from rich, working three jobs to pay his tuition and struggling with a difficult home life. Ronan has a taste for road racing and bad language -- he's got worse, apparently, since his father was murdered -- but he also has a pet fledgling (a raven, of course). Noah ... well, Noah's a bit vague. (Actually this is not true. Noah is perfectly truthful and open. It's just that nobody listens.) And Gansey -- who survived, or was brought back after, a lethal hornet attack seven years before -- is convinced that somewhere in the lush Virginia countryside lies the tomb of Owen Glendower, who will grant a favour to the person who finds and wakes him.

I think the charm of this book, for me, was in the way that the relationships between the characters (teenaged and adult) were developed. I liked Maura and Calla's no-nonsense approach to their predictions; the various systems of magic in play; the slow revelation of the characters' pasts ... It's also a really interesting angle on class in America, a phenomenon about which I know little except that it's different to class in the UK.

I should note that I read all four books in the series in rapid succession. This first volume feels like Gansey's story, and Noah's. And with hindsight I wonder if Gansey is a kind of father figure to the others. He's mature for his age: he's been surprisingly independent for the last few years, travelling the world in search of the mystical and hidden. The others have absent fathers (emotionally rather than literally in Adam's case): they look to Gansey as their leader, though he knows he needs them as much as they need him.

I'd bounced off the sample chapters, for some reason, but once I engaged with The Raven Boys I read it in one sitting, and promptly ordered the next one. Review soon!

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