This review will contain some spoilers for the books, particularly the final part, The Raven King.
I started reading The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater in my final year of high school and it gave me a vastly unrealistic expectation of what my summer before university would be like (for example, I didn’t find any dead kings in my basement). As my first year of university comes to an end, it would be only fitting to review the end of a book series that I grew to love so much right before I came to Lancaster.
My journey into TRC began after I saw so much of the books on Tumblr. Finally, I made my mother buy me the first one for Christmas (or rather, I bought it, and told her that I’m counting it as part of my Christmas gifts), then I took it with me to our country house, and put it under the Christmas tree, and on Christmas morning took it from there, and finished it in one sitting. This was the winter of 2014. I can’t do a proper review of The Raven King without going back to that winter. To that first book. I am a speedreader, I finish books fast. And then I want more. I finished The Raven Boys, and I wanted more. But I also didn’t. There isn’t a proper way for me to articulate how finishing that first book felt, satisfying, complete, and at once just – not quite enough.
The Raven Boys was a staggeringly good first book – most book series tend to have a strong beginning. By no means Stiefvater’s first writing attempt (she has another series going on, that’s about werewolves, and that’s just… bit not good. Perhaps it’s just not my cup of tea, I’m a vampire person.) it was something almost entirely complete on its own – it was a complete promise that better things would come. A polished, mature writing style with a prose that managed to be effortless and artful, lyrical, and the subtle shifts of point of view between characters show a kind of craft and mastership of language that most authors can only strive for. The beauty of it is only amplified by the fact that at its core TRC is a young adult series, and is written appropriately for its audience – elevated enough that it doesn’t sound condescending, or childish – perhaps elevated enough that it would entice an adult reader, but also not so overwhelmingly centered on aesthetics that the plot gets lost.
Overall, the premise, and the characters, presented as they were in the first book promised an adventure. The problem outlined in the first pages – a girl surrounded by magic who isn’t magic, and who can’t kiss boys, and boys, and a death curse, and a long lost legend – sound entertaining enough, a clear-cut fantasy-laden coming-of-age that we have seen so many of before, with all the tropes that iron out the lines of the genre – Chosen One, A Very Special Girl, something about kisses, some kind of deep magical secret, some kind of other magic, something very Big and Evil lurking, something about other supporting characters who are almost as main as the main characters, if not more. You don’t read books like that for the plot – it’s archetypal at best. You read them for the characters. For the craft. My Creative Writing course at university repeats one and the same at an almost constant monotony: “Don’t write genre literature.” But if you were to write genre literature – this is how you do it. This is how you start it. This is how you get big.
And if I started The Raven Boys nudged gently along by tumblr aesthetics and vaguely written blank verse poetry, I moved on to The Dream Thieves, because I genuinely wanted to see what happens with Gansey and Blue. TDT was a beautiful follow up to TRC that lived up to everything the first part promised – magic, and adventure, and danger, but actually, surprisingly little of Blue and Gansey at all. Surprisingly little, really, of anyone except for Ronan Lynch, and oh, how pleased I was about that. At that point, he was my favorite character.
I had already been told that there is a Bulgarian character in book two and as a Bulgarian character myself, was beyond excited. Spoiler Alert: Joseph Kavinsky is my favorite character in the whole series. I finished The Dream Thieves in the middle of one of my last civics classes ever (sorry, Mr. Clapp!). There was some type of discussion going on. I was taking notes with one hand, and holding my phone in the other, hiding it behind a pile of books, and flipping the pages on the PDF. When I reached the ending, I made a noise and dropped my phone, and I distinctly recall it gathering some attention, and I also cried, quite literally, with tears awkwardly gathering at the corners of my eyes, and sliding down my cheeks. Where TRC had been something almost gentle, calm in the way it treated the reader, TDT was violent. Dangerous. Pointless and sad. Now when I reread it, I only enter Kavinsky’s name in the file, and read only the parts that mention him. I can’t bear to read anything other than those parts, and even so, I am left aching and longing. I actually don’t want to talk much about TDT here, because I can’t properly articulate the extent to which I love it, and how painful the ending was. It will always be my favorite book in the whole series (and perhaps one of my favorite books, period), and it will always have a special place in my heart. Let us not forget it also contains the most iconic line in the whole series:
hey Lynch I didn’t leave that car for it to sit while you just blow III
If you want context for it, read the books.
Oddly enough, I don’t remember much of the third book. Blue Lily, Lily Blue was by no means a bad book, definitely not worse than the first two, but compared to them it seemed almost dull, with very little actual adventure happening. Aside from the ridiculous redemption arc given to the middle-aged serial killer/assassin who also Ronan’s father (giving him a pretty bad case of PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation and overall permanently fucking him up for life), but was given the green light on dating Blue’s mother like that is completely normal, and couldn’t at all possibly trigger Ronan, there was very little in it that inspired any particular feelings in me. Generally it was following in the tone of the series, with the same powerful lyrical writing, but I felt like it was lacking something to make it as special as the first two (Kavinsky). It did, however, do one thing properly:
Setting up the final book in the series, The Raven King.
This portion of the review will contain spoilers.
In many ways, we already knew what TRK would contain, as Stiefvater had cleverly set it up throughout the series:
- Ronan and Adam will kiss. Check. They did.
- Noah will die, this time for good. Check. He di(e)d.
- Blue and Gansey will kiss. Check. They did.
- Gansey will die. Check. He di(e)d.
- In a plot twist that surprises absolutely no one, because we’ve seen it done before in book series about a chosen one who is supposed to die, Gansey will come back to life.
All these things happened. No fan expectation was left unfulfilled. Perhaps, even, in a nod to fans, Kavinsky’s death was finally addressed (poorly, hastily, a post-copy-edits add-in). The book was a beautiful, overwhelming finale to her series, matching TDT in its brilliance.
TRK combined everything that I at first loved about the series: a writing style that takes your breath away, characters that you fall in love with, page in and page out (except for The Gray Man, a literal actual mass murderer, and Piper Greenmantle for much the same reason, though she is written to be hateful, like a sexier version of Professor Umbridge), a sense of youthful adventure, and – a sense of friendship, and wide-eyed, innocent in its naivete, youthful immortality.
And combining all of that, TRK brings forward one very important thing. The end of an era. Closure. It’s okay for things to finish sometimes. It’s okay to be dissatisfied. It’s okay when things don’t happen how you want them to.
I could talk about this at length. Perhaps I will in a later post. But there is one scene, out of these entire book about magic and lost kings and immortality, and demons that stuck with me.
Adam Parrish going home. In book one we see Adam as a furtive fearful victim, cowering from his father’s fists. In book two we see Adam as the victim – still struggling, running away, hiding. In book three we see Adam still full of anger and fear and self-loathing but also more. In book four, Adam kisses Ronan Lynch. And then drives his car to the home where his father beat him, punching him so hard he lost hearing in one ear. And there, Adam Parrish stands in the kitchen where he once cowered, and confronts his father in a quiet polite voice, and tells him he wants them to heal. Nowhere in the book does it say that Adam has forgiven his father. But what it does say is this: “he forgave the past Adam”.
How utterly simple it seems, written like this. Closure. The finale. Everything is okay now. TRC deals with the storylines of many characters, treats every single one of them as ultimately important. And each storyline receives a resolution. But none so clear, elegant, beautiful and poignant as Adam Parish’s.
The final verdict on TRC will always be a definite 5/5. I will always sing its praises. I can say with absolute conviction that TRC is one of the best young adult series out there, with its tentative exploration of what it feels like to be young, and then to have to transition from the wide-eyed youth of a school child, to the responsibility laden minefield of young-adulthood. I wholeheartedly recommend it. As a side note, I would recommend, while reading, that you listen to Halsey’s album Badlands (available on iTunes).