renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
[personal profile] renay posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
Raven render in bold black strokes of a paintbrush with a glowing red center.

"There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark's Eve," Neeve said. "Either you’re his true love…or you killed him."

It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.

But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore (source).

Seriously, screw this book, all its feelings, its twists that gutted me, and its characterizations that made me want to rip my heart out and chuck it across the room so I could just stop the misery. Fuck this book for having, apparently, three follow ups, the second of which only came out this September. My rage over the fact that I'll have to wait yet another year for more after The Dream Thieves is eclipsed only by my love of these characters as they find each other, discover one another's secrets, and begin to tie themselves together with friendship and magic.

In the cases where I love a book to distraction and/or violent rage, I generally can't review it — this is a common problem, I've found; I'm much better at negativity (oops). I don't know how to effectively communicate the resonance of a narrative without devolving into effusive, keysmashing adoration and capslock. I've tried with this book before, but kept getting stuck. I turned to my tried and true method of failure to make words like an adult: reading why everyone else loved the book and basking in their affection rather than writing explicitly about it. Living vicariously through others! Except this time I discovered that I could find the words about why I loved this book when I found the following reaction in a review from Elitist Book Reviews:

This is very much a teen fantasy romance novel, and...I'm far from a teen fantasy romance reader. Despite this fact, I still finished the book, mainly because there were some fantasy elements in it that were strong enough to get me through the lovey-dovey stuff. […] There were long swathes of girls and boys thinking and yearning and debating who to kiss. Intense descriptions of hand holding and whispers that tickle ears and touches filled with electricity and desire.

There's a lot happening in The Raven Boys, and wow, maybe I have been forever spoiled by fanfic, but this book...didn't...really do what this review suggests all that much? "Filled with electricity and desire?" If that was part of a summary for a Derek/Stiles fic, there better be orgasms or I'd want my money back.

Spoiler: there were no orgasms in this book.

This is a romance and a quest narrative, filled with complicated characters (even the adults have density in the novel so that you root for them, it's like this is Teen Wolf or something). Gansey is searching for a ley line and a hidden king. Blue is searching for answers to questions she's faced her entire life and for companionship she feels she may be denied. Adam is constantly looking over his shoulder, because to look too far to the future means perhaps not seeing one. Ronan is harder to pin down; this is his prologue, not his story:

Calla rubbed her fingertips together, as if she was wiping the memory of Ronan's tattoo from them. "It's like scrying into that weird space. There's so much coming out of him, it shouldn't be possible. Do you remember that woman who came in who was pregnant with quadruplets? It was like that, but worse."
"He's pregnant?" Blue asked.
"He's creating," Calla said. — The Raven Boys, Chapter 15

Noah — reserved, quiet, affectionate — is even more difficult to explain. You really have to meet him first, I think.

The majority of this book is a mystery. It's not so much about individual readers trying figure out what's going on (widely read folks will probably catch on quickly). Instead, the mystery is for the characters to navigate as they work through the uncertainty and pure joy of a larger than life puzzle, the losses we face as we grow up, and making tough choices that have life-altering consequences. For adults, the emotional core of the novel asks us to remember what some of these feelings are like with fondness and affection and a little bit of awe. It felt like The Dark is Rising series with a distinctly American tone which is keenly aware of its roots. It nods to many of the layers of a complicated American landscape with regards to money, power, social standing, and privilege. Yes, there is romance here, but without the romance, I'm not sure the other parts would have coalesced; so many of Blue's decisions to lend her Raven Boys her power is caught up in her feelings for Adam and her knowledge about Gansey's future. Love's driving this particular ship, friends, into the heart-wrenching partial resolution and cliffhanger at the end.

As a culture, we have such a complicated relationship with love, expressions of love, and physical affection connected to those things. Stories about most types of love, whether romantic or platonic, are inherently less important than other types of stories. Romantic love falls prey to this the most often, as per Action vs Romance by Foz Meadows. The Raven Boys is the beginning of this process:

In het-female-oriented romance stories, the resolution of conflict between hero and heroine serves as the narrative justification for the romantic outcome: he has done Y and she has done Z, therefore they win each other. The story is about both their wants and needs, and while there’s often a stronger emotional focus on the heroine, the why of the hero’s attraction is still deemed important. [...] Traditional romance narratives teach women that relationships are based on the mutual resolution of conflict. They are also constantly derided as not only lesser stories, but so inherently feminine as to be incompatible with male interest.

I question the argument from Elitist Book Reviews that the "intense" description of desire overpowers The Raven Boys, and squint at the way the story's romance is presented as almost a negative, as well ("books for chicks"? Really?). Can we please not undermine or devalue the experiences of our young adults, especially our girls, by pretending that as adults (whatever our gender) we don't yearn for love, or physical affection, or the warm feeling we get when we're with someone we love, who loves us back? Reaching out for affection, when it is unclear it is on offer, can be terrifying at any age, and this story cuts to the heart of that fear. Accepting affection, even when we know it is guaranteed and comes with no strings, can be terrifying, and this story cuts to the heart of that fear, too. These young people yearn because they are growing and learning to understand what it is they want from the people around them. Emotional growth and maturity are important, valuable lessons that we really shouldn't stop learning as we grow. Otherwise, how do we keep connecting with new people throughout our lives?

There is romance and there is fantasy in this story, but the love in this book is so much more diverse than that. The love is friendship, companionship, and familial bonds; both the kind we are given at birth and the kind that we build ourselves as we grow up. The love is also romantic, because Adam, Blue, and Gansey in particular lack a type of interpersonal connection that they begin to find with each other. Their romantic love fuels the story of Gansey's search for the ley line, Glendower, and himself. It fuels Adam's fight to survive, prosper, and be himself on his terms, not those defined by Gansey. It gives Blue people who understand and enjoy her, people who listen and match her intelligence and curiosity, and challenge her to face her magical power and her fate as it was set out for her from her birth: that if she kisses her true love, he will die.

Their love leads them down paths of magic in this novel; their love is inextricable from the plot. If not for the love they have for one another, if not for Blue's love of these boys, her boys, they would have no story. They are powerful; her love gives them more power. The lost stories that are revealed at the end of the novel would still be lost without her feelings. The love Blue has for these boys and the love they have for her can change their worlds irrevocably — love can do that to any of us at any point in our lives. Blue's affection, the power of her love, can alter the world around her, and the people she chooses to care for. With that much power and responsibility placed on her by a prophecy that shapes her whole life and casts a shadow over her future happiness It stands to reason that Blue would yearn for something she wants. She yearns for it even though it seems like it will be denied if she takes it, along with someone else's life. The power to love. The power to kill.

He put his mouth right against her ear so that she could hear him. He smelled like summer and cheap shampoo. She felt a tickle go all the way from her belly button to her feet.
"I've flown once," he replied. His breath was hot on her skin. Blue was paralyzed; all she could think was This is how close a kiss is. It felt every bit as dangerous as she'd imagined. — The Raven Boys, Chapter 21

I'm a little exhausted by the idea that our capacity for love — a young girl's capacity for love — is worthy of derision, because I see it all the time (there's a reason so much excellent SFF YA is ignored by the wider SFF community). Books for chicks, indeed.

Have we become so derisive of love and affection that we allow ourselves to erase entire books of complicated relationships and magic and wonder and heartbreak over a love story? How much derision will we, as a culture, continue to swallow regarding the importance of love in our lives and in the stories we tell each other, discuss, and reward with our accolades? Will we continue to build idols to the idea that masculinity is the last bastion of freedom from girl cooties? Will we defend the idea that there's some arbitrary, natural divide between "stuff for girls" and "stuff for boys" that goes beyond cultural training? Will we keep building a narrative history that treats women as objects and devalue stories where men and women are equally important to the foundation of a relationship, whether it be romantic or otherwise? Will we keep pretending that characters build relationships while standing still, instead of building them along ley lines, on battlefields, while exploring star systems, on alien planets, and that everything else a novel could contain is overshadowed by the mere idea of feelings? Why else do we read a story but to feel?

It didn't escape Blue that his slightly accented voice was as nice as his looks. It was all Henrietta sunset: how front-porch swings and cold iced-tea glasses, cicadas louder than your thoughts. He glanced over his shoulder, then, at the sound of a car on a side street. When he looked back to her, he still wore a wary expression, and Blue saw that this expression — a wrinkle pinched between his eyebrows, mouth tense — was his normal one. It fit his features perfectly, matched up with every line around his mouth and eyes. This Aglionby boy isn't often happy, she thought. — The Raven Boys, Chapter 8

I like my stories with a wide array of feelings and dramatic adventures, whether those adventures are a search for a long-dead king, the peaks and valleys of navigating first love, the complicated give and take of a burgeoning friendship, the warmth of an instant connection, coming to terms with wanting and having power, the power shifts between parent and child as the child grows up, the struggles of boys who all want a home, or a girl who yearns for, and dreads, her first kiss.

The Raven Boys contains all of that — perfectly.

PS Chainsaw is the best.

Other Reviews & Discussions
In the Forest of Stories, Susan Hated Literature, Staffer's Book Review, Spec-Fic Romantic, yours?

Comments may contain spoilers.

Date: 2013-10-03 12:21 am (UTC)
cofax7: climbing on an abbey wall  (Default)
From: [personal profile] cofax7
I just read this last week -- I think there was a special sale because the sequel is coming out? -- and I just really liked it. Stiefvater knows what she's doing, knows how to balance the characters and the plot, knows how much information to share and what to withhold. It's vivid and sympathetic and unsettling. The romance isn't overwrought and the characters are all -- except for Ronan and occasionally Gansey -- pretty sensible. Blue might be a bit too sensible for her age, but her upbringing can account for that.

I was prepared to dislike the fact that Blue's the only girl, but she's surrounded by other women, all of whom have their own needs/desires. We're not short on female characters with agency.

But if Glendower isn't Blue's father, I'll eat my hat.

Date: 2013-10-03 03:37 pm (UTC)
rj_anderson: (Owl in a Tree)
From: [personal profile] rj_anderson
Dang, there goes my theory that Gansey is Glendower. OR DOES IT?

Date: 2013-10-13 12:58 am (UTC)
bloodybrilliant: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bloodybrilliant
I thought this as well! Both of them, in fact: Gansey *is* Glendower and also Glendower is Blue's dad! I WISH The Dream Thieves hadn't just come out because oh man, am I ready for book 3!!!! I cannot WAIT to find out which of these is true because I have a feeling one of them is :))

Date: 2013-10-13 06:12 pm (UTC)
rj_anderson: From a quote by Pamela Dean (Book Book Book)
From: [personal profile] rj_anderson
I'm just hoping that they aren't both true at once, because ew.

Date: 2013-10-03 02:52 am (UTC)
clare_dragonfly: woman with green feathery wings, text: stories last longer: but only by becoming only stories (Default)
From: [personal profile] clare_dragonfly
My rage over the fact that I'll have to wait yet another year for more after The Dream Thieves is eclipsed only by my love of these characters

That is EXACTLY how I feel about it. ♥ ♥ ♥

This is a wonderful post. (And Chainsaw is the best.)

Also, OMG, have you not read The Dream Thieves yet? I think you will be pleased :D

Date: 2013-10-03 03:15 am (UTC)
clare_dragonfly: woman with green feathery wings, text: stories last longer: but only by becoming only stories (Angels in America: prophet)
From: [personal profile] clare_dragonfly
I totally get that. I took The Raven Boys out of the library even though I was sure I would like it after The Scorpio Races and reading the description. But I had to preorder The Dream Thieves and I'm sure I'll be doing the same with the rest of the series because I just absolutely cannot wait an hour more than necessary!

Date: 2013-10-03 07:24 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I love this book so much. I've read it about six times. I love your reaction to it. Wait to read Dream Thieves if you can. There's just no words as to how many theories I have. About all the things. Gaaah!

Also: Chainsaw is awesome.


Date: 2013-10-03 08:04 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I heart this post so much <3 As I promised you I'll read this soon, and then we'll talk about it at great length :D

Date: 2013-10-03 08:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I didn't love this as much as you did, but I certainly enjoyed it :) I'm in the middle of The Dream Thieves at the moment, but I really wish I'd reread this first as I spending a lot of time trying to remember backstories :)

I did love and adore her The Scorpio Races though. Have you read that one?

Date: 2013-10-05 03:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I concur with your feelings :) I listened to most of your podcast, but my internet connection if playing up today so I'm afraid you got cut off midway through :)

Date: 2013-10-04 06:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Renay, I think this is one of the best things you've written. I think you've found a wonderful way to write about books you love.

And, of course, word on the devaluation of romance stories. They shouldn't be the only stories and there's nothing wrong with not caring for them, but for them to be devalued in specifically sexist terms—because they're "girly" or for girls (never mind that a teenage girl learning to love another human being is a beautiful thing)… my hackles raise.

Date: 2013-10-14 03:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh you may be weary
Those love stories, they can get weary
Dragging out those same tropes every day-ay
But when you get weary
Try a little specificity, yeah yeah

You know we are waiting
Just anticipating
A love story that speaks to our souls, yeah yeah
But while we are waiting for them
Try a little specificity

(Why yes, Pretty in Pink's Duckie is in my look book!)

Date: 2013-10-09 02:19 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Thank you so, so much for this review. I loved the complexity of this book and that it dared to try and cover some themes a lot of other books, especially a lot of other -romance- books, don't. Also, the characterization is wonderfully done in The Raven Boys and I feel so little people actually take the time to appreciate how well Stiefvater has set this series up. So, thank you.


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