FEBRUARY 21, 2013
“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 convincing.
The Raven Boys is not so perfectly accomplished, but its ambitious staging is provocative. Her settings mirror the novel’s interest in the feminine and masculine experience of magic, and the book travels between the womanly space of the psychics’ home (full of ladies warring affectionately for the bathroom) and the abandoned industrial loft where Gansey and friends live together, loyal but rivalrous, arguing about schoolwork and building elaborate cardboard models of the mystical sites they visit. (Again, this loft could become twee but doesn’t: it is one of the most appealing YA locations I’ve read about in a long time.) Further, the Virginia forest (which the central characters explore) is a wilderness in the Hawthornian sense: free from convention but dangerously in tune with darker human, and even superhuman, desires.
The Raven Boys hinges on feelings that are intensely loving without slipping into the tight conventions of romance. The bond between the boys is intimately drawn, giving attention to the ways rivalry and loyalty often exist in delicate tandem with each other. And while Blue’s friendship with Gansey is as important to the novel as her courtship with Gansey’s friend Adam, the relationship between the three never reads like a simple love triangle. In part, that’s because the emerging relationship between Gansey and Adam (and Blue as well) works around structures of privilege that The Raven Boys probes with great care. I’ve argued elsewhere that much YA literature reflects our culture’s current ambivalence towards manhood and male power; The Raven Boys tackles this apprehension head on. Gansey is clearly cast as the fairy tale’s modern prince: the wealthy scion of a politically powerfully family. But unlike in the fairy tales of early generations, Gansey is often apprehensive about what his status means, especially given that his best friend lives in a trailer park. How does class work in a modern fairy tale, where life in the “village” isn’t easily romanticized? What sort of moral status can Gansey claim, he wonders, when power protects him from the very real suffering of his closest friends? Can he ever truly understand them? Stiefvater’s careful efforts to move her focalization between Gansey and Adam, across the lines of class, allows for a startling compelling presentation of both boys’ social experience.
The Raven Boys is Stiefvater’s first book written in the third person, a perspective that gives her space to show off her fluid prose without freighting her adolescent characters with (as seemed sometimes the case in Shiver) an unconvincing articulateness. But in a literary marketplace that trades on identification and plot-driven readability, the third person voice is sometimes a risk. And it’s especially risky because The Raven Boys’s narrator indulges in plot digressions, emphatic repetition, lush description, long lists. One occasionally wonders if the Whitmanian excess is completely necessary.
But then, maybe it is. For instance, in a key moment in the plot, Stiefvater starts to repeat a descriptive pattern, referring to time as “a sluggish thing” and then, immediately after, the character Adam as “a complicated thing.” Reading it, the repetition felt careless until, a sentence later, Stiefvater twists her pattern into an evocative stylistic climax — “This was the most important thing” — and then, on the next page, resolves the narrative tension by using the same phrase to deliver a moral: “such a shocking thing, such a wrong thing.” In this small example, we see Stiefvater shaping a narrative climax with deft maneuvering that complements the plot-driven realm of YA. In its prose, The Raven Boys offers remarkably rich gifts.
And if its plot, with its slow start and multiple digressions, isn’t perfectly sculpted, that’s a criticism that I can recognize but don’t actually feel. The story’s excesses are apparent but also appealing, and they are clearly motivated by Stiefvater’s zealous attraction to the small details of her characters’ experience. That the details of a magical ritual and the repair of a Camaro’s engine merit equal descriptive energy might alienate some, but The Raven Boys is ultimately a memorable, engrossing read by an author whose narrative powers are still on the rise. I look forward to the sequel and the chance to spend more time in this dark, lush world.