|tags:||Young Adult & Children's Literature|
“IT WAS STARTING, IT WAS STARTING,” the narrator tells us, midway through Maggie Stiefvater’s crescendo of a novel, The Raven Boys. The appearance of this line so late in the story is characteristic of the slow — but nevertheless emphatic — energy Stiefvater conjures in her strange, beautiful fairy tale of the everyday. Ambitious and compelling, The Raven Boys grips its reader with increasing intensity, finally casting a riveting spell.
What’s “starting” for the characters in The Raven Boys? Stiefvater’s novel begins with a juicy prophecy: fortune tellers warn a girl named Blue that if she were “to kiss her true love, he would die.” The strategically familiar opening seems to promise the reader a fairy tale romance drawn in conventional terms. But instead, Stiefvater joins ranks with several of the best YA authors right now, who are more interested in manipulating formulas then reinforcing them. Blue rejects the limits of her own fated princess–like story. Instead, playing provocatively with the gender of fairy tale archetypes, Blue joins a boy, Gansey, and his friends on a hero’s quest for the tomb of an ancient king. In this novel, the emotional and the epic stakes entwine for both its female and male characters.
Here’s another central thing: this fairy tale, with all its archetypes carefully in place, takes place in a normal town in present-day Virginia. Blue, the fairy tale’s village beauty, works after school in a pizza parlor; the story’s prince, Gansey, with his loyal knights, is a wealthy student at the expensive local boys’ school; the fortune-tellers are Blue’s mother and aunts, eking out a meager living as psychics in their rural town. Even the fairy tale trope of the prince’s trusty but incorrigible horse merges into the modern, through Gansey’s affection for hard-to-maintain old cars. In less capable hands, this recasting of the fairy tale motifs could come off as coy, but Stiefvater’s careful rendering avoids preciousness. Instead, in a vein similar to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Stiefvater carefully ponders what it would mean to set a fairytale within the social realities of the present day. This is a question of both affect and genre, and Stiefvater poses it by bringing together conventions from fantasy, magic realism, and typical YA high school romance.
Stiefvater was made famous by her bestselling Shiver trilogy — a romance reaping Twilight’s bounty, imagining a girl’s relationship to a tormented werewolf rather than vampire. In Shiver, Stiefvater’s gifts as a prose stylist are at war with the expectations of genre. Despite some rich scenes and a memorable male lead, the novel seems so much more invested in its careful language than its story that the plot, overall, feels thin and unconvincing. It’s a problem Stiefvater solved, and then some, in her dazzling 2011 follow up, The Scorpio Races. This book, which tells the story of a deadly ritualized horse race on an imagined island, is restrained, convincing, and perfectly executed. Although it fits broadly into the category of YA fantasy, The Scorpio Races stages the expectations of the genre so compellingly that every plot twist feels fresh, heartrending, and utterly convincin...