image source: readbreatherelax.com
Go to Chapters, and take a book from the nearest Young Adult bookshelf. Flip to any page that does not involve a dance, a love interest, a clique or a “queen bee”. The more you read, the more you may notice that today’s YA genre is inundated with books by authors who no longer remember what it was like to be a young adult.
Or, if they do, they do a terrible job of writing about it.
In these books, high school is reduced to trope-y cliques. Characters are slaves to the whims of their hormones, and often two-dimensional. Even speculative YA fiction often falls to these clichés.
However, there are a few books that break this teenage drama mould. In Maggie Stiefvater’s 4-part series The Raven Cycle, the high school-aged characters are written with their intended readership in mind. Not only are Stiefvter’s characters dimensional and captivating, but they deal with real issues, garner sympathy from the reader, and meddle in magical realms to boot. And that’s only a small part of what makes The Raven Cycle so incredible.
Blue Sargent, the non-psychic daughter of a clairvoyant mother, has been told for as long as she can remember that her kiss will kill her true love. But being a sensible person, she disbelieves the idea of true love at all and lives by the policy of avoiding all boys. In particular, she ignores the boys who attend Aglionby Academy, a private boys’ school near her home in rural Henrietta, Virginia.
It isn’t until she sees the soon-to-be-dead spirit of a boy named Gansey — and that very same Gansey shows up at her door for a psychic reading — that her world becomes tangled in the odd, magical world of the Raven Boys.
The series deals heavily with themes of identity — found through struggles in class differences, sexual orientation, and realizing how to discover one’s meaning. Gansey, a product of old Virginia money, desperately wants his over-privileged life to be worth something. This something, he believes, will be discovered as soon as he can find Glendower, an ancient Welsh king rumoured to be buried in the mountains of Virginia. Without the psychic abilities of her mother, Blue Sargent is driven to seek out her own future.
Adam Parrish, who accepts help from no one, just wants to find a bigger and better life outside the walls of the trailer home where he is abused by his father. Ronan Lynch, still reeling from the mysterious death of his beloved father, struggles to contain himself within the confines of academic, monolithic Aglionby Academy. United by unlikely bonds of friendship, this group embarks on the quest to find Glendower and, on the way, end up on individual paths toward their own destinies.
This sharp characterization is my favourite thing about the series. Stiefvater excels at writing characters who feel real, whose descriptions stick in the mind for all their uniqueness, whose backstories provide them with clear, urgent motivations, and whose struggles draw in the reader. Each character carries, in equal parts, both a sense of relatability and a touch of extraordinary magic — making them people who objectively could never exist in the real world, but who really feel like they could.
Just like Blue, I fell in love with the raven boys. Years after reading the first novel, I still can’t choose a favourite. More than anything else, I love the way this series portrays friendship as a bond that is sometimes thicker than blood. In finding your identity, you might just find your family.
Stiefvater’s gorgeous prose is another thing that makes this series so good. Just as the sentient trees in the magical forest of Cabeswater speak to our heroes in a language too strange and beautiful to be understood, Stiefvater’s writing seems, at times, to transcend the boundaries of what is real and what is magic. Her masterful control over language contributes further to the dimension she adds to her characters, and her own quirkiness and sense of humour always shines through.
After the release of book three, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, I waited a year and a half for the fourth and final installment of the series — The Raven King — to be delivered into my hands on April 26th of this year. I’m not quite sure yet if the finale lived up to everything Stiefvater promised it would be, but don’t let that discourage you from reading this series. The Raven Cycle is a jewel among the many thorns of the young adult speculative genre. If Blue Sargent’s clairvoyant mother could see my future, I’m certain she would find me constantly returning to the thrills and chills offered to me by the denizens of this series’ tiny Virginia town.
-Contributed by Julia Bartel