*NOTA BENE: This review has been truncated due to spoilers. You can read the entire review over on Goodreads.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am conflicted.
I am conflicted because I adore The Raven Cycle. Its first installment, The Raven Boys was my introduction in the poetic writing of Maggie Stiefvater — it was also one of the first books I bought with an Audible credit. And, let me tell you, it’s has one of the best narrator-narrative pairings you will ever find in the southern drawl of actor, Will Patton. The following two installments, Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue, were fantastic and I pre-ordered The Raven King the moment it was available on Amazon.
So here we are at the finale of this wild and weird ride — I purposefully do not say the end or the conclusion. For time, in a way, has always been cyclical in this series. There is no true beginning or end, something made very clear by this novel.
Depending on where you began, this story was always about…
This rich ensemble piece is a tapestry, weaving its story in an array of colours and light and shadows. There are things that are the stuff of nightmares, both literally and metaphorically — needless to say that Stiefvater has no problem bringing forth not only the creep-factor, but the downright horrifying and terrifying. Noah, Adam, and Ronan seem to bear the brunt of this horror and, I have to admit, they’ve risen from just part of the ensemble to the main players of the “story.”
I say “story” in air-quotes because, at face-value, the Plot of the novel is the search for the long-dead Welsh king, Glendower. But this story isn’t about its face-value; to reduce it to face value is to cheapen its richness, to do it a disservice. As was once said in the tv series, The West Wing:
“Ten word answers can kill you…they’re the tip of the sword.”
The search for Glendower is the tip of the sword of this novel, but I would be lying if I told you I didn’t think it was one of the most interesting parts. I did, and I do. The search for Glendower was what I thought would encompass the bulk of The Raven King; that it would be this blaze of glory towards it heart-crushing finale. Yes, heart-crushing: we’ve known all along that Gansey had to die. It’s been promised since the opening of The Raven Boys, and Maggie Stiefvater has always delivered upon her literary promises.
And this is where we get into my own personal conflict with this novel: Gansey.
In order for the aforementioned literary device to work, I need to like Gansey — really like Gansey. I also have to bank upon his relationship with our heroine, Blue. Now, I liked Gansey when we first met him, but the more time I spent with him across these four books, the more insufferable he became. His smugness and self-righteousness really began to grate upon me. I became more curious about how Ms. Stiefvater would make me really care about his passing more than anything else. And I’m fairly certain that’s not a great thing. Let me be clear: this is not me knocking on the writing or development of this character. It is simply Gansey’s personality that I did not enjoy as much as the others. Given the wide array of personalities in this series, this was bound to happen. But i do think that The Raven King exacerbates my problem, because Gansey and Blue’s storyline is flat for the majority of the novel. In a way, they peaked too early, and their romance oozes “fated love” so much that it bothers me. Is this a bit ridiculous? Yes. Most of the conceit of the series is that we already “know” what’s going to happen. We know that Blue and Gansey will get together, that he is her true love, that she will kiss him, that he will die. These are all things we already know.
So why does their relationship bother me in this novel? I think it bothers me because the tension is now gone. It vanished the moment they came together, because I never saw this novel as one about romance, and putting it into the novel took away from what I thought was the series’ power: the power of potential energy. Despite all the kinetic chaos of the things that occur with Cabeswater, Ronan’s dreams, and Adam’s powers, this series has always been the world holding its breath; it is a world built upon anticipation. The breath right before the storm, when you’re watching the roiling clouds in shades of blue, yellow, and purple, rolling in — when you can feel the lightning building above your head. That is what I loved about the poetry of this series, and I chalk all of that up to Maggie Stiefvater’s sumptuous writing and wild imagination.
And yet everything with Blue and Gansey in this novel felt…prosaic, almost mundane. There was predictability, something I had not yet experienced in this series, and I was left feeling rather stricken by my own almost blasé attitude towards their storyline. The characters had always been the strongest part of this story, so for me to feel borderline apathetic towards two of them — what are probably often considered the core two characters — was distressing.
This is especially when all the other characters were drawn so well. Even side characters with whom we spend only the briefest amount of comparative time, or who are introduced within this novel. By the end, I liked Henry more than I liked Gansey, and I was full-on ready for him to be become a kind of Gansey-replacement. That he would fill the hole left by the death of this group’s metaphorical “king.”
But Gansey should have stayed dead.
I hate to say it, but I’m going to say it. Despite the fact it flies in the face of everything I’ve already praised about how time is cyclical and how there is neither a beginning nor end to this story…Gansey should have stayed dead. The moment he died and Henry called the others his “magicians,” I knew that he was coming back. And that was something that immediately devastated me. The emotional impact had actually worked! I had felt a moment of sadness, and then I felt my heart sink into my stomach, because I knew they were going to bring him back, and even though this should have made me happy, given how it fell perfectly in line with the internal logic of the world, I was still disappointed.
And I freely accept that this is not a popular opinion, and that this is clearly just a plot device that bothers me. But if you promise me that a character is going to die, I kind of expect him to stay dead. Characters have died within this series and remained dead — even Noah, despite his existence, could never claim to be “alive.” This is just me, and I feel almost bad for letting this irritate me because (I have to say it again) it falls perfectly in sync with the internal logic of the series. (hide spoiler)]
Ms. Stiefvater wrote in a wonderful post that she wanted people to be left “wanting” by this novel. And I am, in both good and potentially not so good ways. Many threads are left untied because, at the end of the day, we don’t always know what happens to the people in our lives. The world spins on no matter what we do, and The Raven Cycle has always been very aware of this. This is an incredibly rich series of complex characters with a unique, interesting setting and sequences that are described in such lush poetry that its cinematic. It is atmospheric fiction at some of its finest, even when it (in my opinion) stumbles in its final moments.
Side note: If we were ever to get side stories on Henry and the Gray Man, I’d be totally down.