As someone who never finished The Scorpio Races, I was a bit nervous about reading The Raven Boys. The book’s premise (psychics and magic-seeking teens), not to mention the opening sentence (Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.) promised enough clichés to send me running for cover. Lucky for me, Stiefvater upends expectations by prioritizing human characters before the paranormal and keeping the relationship angst to a minimum. In fact, the book is surprisingly mundane (in a good way) for a story about five teenagers seeking the tomb of an ancient king.
Blue Sargent is the only normal person in a family of psychics. While her mother and aunts work in the predictions business, Blue spends her time on the practical side of life—like holding down multiple after-school jobs, and dreaming of a future far from Henrietta, Virginia. She avoids boys on principle (the better to dodge the kiss-and-murder prediction), until she befriends four prep school boys who are searching for the resting place of Glendower, an ancient Welsh king (Virginia and Wales are connected magical ley lines—it’s a long story). Legend says the king lies asleep, not dead, and the first to wake him will be granted a king’s favor. This backstory is vaguely interesting. What really matters is why the boys have spent years on this quest, and why Blue wants to help. Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah seem like typical spoiled teens fueled by angst and reckless abandon, but they’re also driven by serious reasons, whether it’s Gansey trying to make something of himself, Adam’s desperate need for independence, or Ronan and Noah’s loyalty to their friends. The quest gives them something to hold on to, even as the rest of their lives are falling apart (school expulsion, drunkeness, family feuds). Stiefvater spends most of the book on their day-to-day struggles, and she’s defined them so well that I wouldn’t have cared if they were searching for leprechauns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Like they say about the best of adventures, the journey is a lot more interesting than the destination.
Sadly, Blue’s own journey gets sidetracked. She originally joins the raven boys to try to save Gansey’s life (it’s complicated), but ends up befriending all of them. In fact, they’re the first real friends she’s ever had. I wanted to see more of how that impacts Blue’s character arc, but the closer they get to Glendower, the more Blue starts to resemble a sidekick (albeit a very important one). Maybe I would have felt differently if I’d expected an ensemble book from the start (the POV shifts regularly between Blue, Gansey, Adam and other characters). But I think Blue is meant to be the centerpiece, so I’m disappointed by her passivity near the end.
Characters aside, Stiefvater has mastered the art of suspense. She doesn’t go for cheap thrills or speedy action. The whole idea of searching for a long-dead sleeping king is quite creepy, and the writing reflects that. Even in the prologue, before Blue joins the raven boys, you get the sense that something’s not right. Here’s how Blue meets her aunt Neeve, a powerful psychic who just happens to be visiting her family:
Neeve finally appeared on a spring evening when the already long shadows of the mountains to the west seemed even longer than usual. When Blue opened the door for her, she thought, for a moment, that Neeve was an unfamiliar old woman, but then her eyes grew used to the stretched crimson light coming through the trees, and she saw that Neeve was barely older than her mother, which was not very old at all.
Outside, in the distance, hounds were crying. Blue was familiar enough with their voices; each fall, the Aglionby Hunt Club rode out with horses and foxhounds nearly every weekend. Blue knew what their frantic howls meant at that moment: They were on the chase.
Unsettling, yes? I hope the deliberate pacing carries over into Blue’s story as well, so she can seize more of the spotlight in the upcoming sequels.