Review: The Raven King

*NOTA BENE: This review has been truncated due to spoilers. You can read the entire review over on Goodreads.

The Raven King
The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

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.”

[SPOILER REDACTED]

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.

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Heartsong to the City

I cannot help but wonder if I love this city because, right now, it is not mine. I am a traveler and a wanderer, a stranger in a foreign land with no responsibilities or cares, because this is not my home. I would love it to be. I would love to be here, living in this imageancient beating heart. The romance would fade and it would no longer be a love affair so much as a…what? Just a way of life? The extraordinary becoming the mundane?

This is not lost on me, and yet that is more beautiful than any facade that I could dream up in my own effervescent fantasies. Because not all of the wonder would fade — it truly wouldn’t. I love this city in a such a way that I know no other words. Perhaps if I loved it any less, I could speak of it more, but such are my feelings for this meeting place of the old and the new. Such is home.

When I first arrived, I briefly feared that I had put London into a kind of rose-tinted memory bubble. That all too quickly the glass would be shattered and fall to pieces at my feet. But within a few moments, I knew that such fears were unfounded. I fell back into the rhythm of the city, back into the habits I had acquired three years ago, and felt myself relax into a kind of comfort I can only call familiarity. Even when I travelled to parts of the city I didn’t know, or thought I did, and got turned around, I never felt particularly worried. It was always still just London. (Okay, small fib: I did get a little worried when I got turned around in a station trying to see one of the coolest people I know before I left.)

Rain is currently pouring down from the sky, shedding down the constant stream of tears I am holding back even now. Perhaps it sounds silly, but to know I am leaving tomorrow is so painful — it clutches at my chest and squeezes so imagethat the beating life organ escapes its ribbed-cage into my throat. I bite my tongue to return to reality, but the ache remains. What is the saying? “The ones we love never really leave us” — and this place has imprinted itself upon my heart so that, were they to cut me open and crack open the bone of my sternum, there, upon the muscle would be etched the words of this city. There, they would see LONDON. Because gods of Olympos I love this city, and I know if I start to cry now, I won’t be able to stop. I suppose you could say I’m a bit of an emotional softie.

Ah, nope, never mind — yes, there are the tears. I wish I could blame them upon the rain because the sky has been crying for me the entirety of this day thus far — why not now? But, no, it is not (just) rain that streaks my cheeks and forces me to look away from the window of my Airbnb flat; every second I spend looking out at the grey London sky makes me cry all the more. Tomorrow I will return to the USA and its southern sunshine, yet I would take a lifetime of rain if it meant I could but call this place my home. Even if it meant being thousands of miles and ocean apart from the world and people whom I love — yes, even then.

imageThis feels so much harder than it did three years ago, and it was hard even then. Perhaps I have to travel alone, wander as I did this past week, to make a place my own and to feel such an intense attachment to it. Huh, I almost wrote ownership — and yet this city is not mine, and how arrogant a human am I to even think something close to it?

I hope the city does not mind that I write it upon my heart, connecting the thinnest and most insignificant of threads between myself and it. Because I will come and go and live and die. And this place will beat on, not caring about a single little human who this very moment dares to dream it could and will be her own.

Goodbye, London. I will be back…and hopefully next time it will be for good.

Pure Imagination

If you take the Tube down south past the river, changing onto the overland line and taking a bit of a small walk, you’ll end up in a district known as Brockley. I’d never been to this part of the city, and admittedly had to let the Citymapper app guide me like Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road — just, you know, without any singing.

Further into the town you can detour just off to the left and you’ll end up at the foot of a great green hill. Well, it’s green right now. How that works during the rest of the seasons, I can’t say for certain. But right now: greener than my pack of Orbit spearmint gum. I climb slowly, because I’m not alone: I’m out with one of my imagefavourite people in the world, the only person I really know in London. For the first time it’s not just me on my own, mind wandering about to think on the idea of tempus fugit and whatever else it chooses.

At least, until I reach the top, and turn northward to face the city skyline. There is haze obscuring what could be a perfect miniature of London, the easily-defined lines of buildings softened. I feel I am looking through frosted glass, the barrier of haze the only thing keeping me from reaching out a hand to touch the city. It’s a sight like I’ve never seen, and one that I don’t think can be replicated, seeing a city skyline from a such a view — knowing that such a place is real. That it’s right there. That I’m actually standing here, on a patch of green, looking out at what I can only call my favourite city in the world.

I have no thoughts. My mind is blank, awash in the sight that I feel privileged to see. This is the city of pure imagination: you think it can’t be real, that someone has pulled it from the effervescent world of a mind’s fantasy, but then there — right there…it stands, close enough to touch and far enough to still seem the stuff of dreams.

Review: Warrior Witch

Warrior Witch
Warrior Witch by Danielle L. Jensen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

**Thank you so much to Angry Robot Books for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purposes of review**

I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed.

As much as paranormal romance is not my genre, I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying the first novel of Jensen’s Malediction Trilogy. The echoes of both Beauty & the Beast and the Hades-Pesephone myth were utilized well within the interesting underground world of Trollus. Yeah, trolls. Something I’ve never seen much of in fantasy, and certainly not like this.

The second book, while it left a good deal to be desired was still entertaining; my primary objections were to its glacial pacing with little plot reward. And, at first, it looked like Ms. Jensen had completely fixed that in Warrior Witch. Things escalate rapidly at the outset of this novel and I was ready for a rip-roaring finale…until I realized that things escalated too quickly with nowhere else to go. Jensen hits a stride and then coasts there, with many things technically happening on almost every page, but with little overarching capital-P “Plot” movement.

This is a shame because it could have been an interesting story, there really could have been some neat things done within this finale. But, in terms of spoiler-free thoughts: the actual denouement was horrible. Whatever might have been good about this series was obliterated in this novel’s need to create unnecessary tension before tying it all up with a pretty bow. I’m still shaking my head because I don’t know what Jensen was attempting to accomplish with her ending — or, endings, rather, given that there are several. I always say: the ending is paramount. It’s the last thing we read, it’s the last thing we remember…and this ending was one of the worst things I have ever read, to the point that I now firmly believe this trilogy should have been a standalone novel.

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Dreaming Dials

It’s easy to see why London inspires so many writers, especially fantasy writers. It is an immortal city, where the old and new sit side-by-side in surprising comfort. Ruins of the Roman walls of Londinium can be found but a stone’s throw away from a 19th century pub and a 21st-century skyscraper. It truly is one of the most remarkable things you can and will see, especially when you’re an American. Our idea of “old” is nothing compared to London.

imageOne of my favourite fantasy novel series’ in recent years is The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon. Whenever I wish to feel under-accomplished, I just remind myself that Ms. Shannon and I are the exact same age and her imagination and painstakingly detailed worldbuilding is on a level that I cannot fathom. No, really, just look at the first book in her series: it’s got glossaries, charts, and maps.

And it is of this series that I think about as I wander down Monmouth Street towards the intersection point of the Seven Dials. Like the centre of a wheel, the spire at the heart of the Seven Dials rises high into the surprisingly sunny sky. The gold of its sundial flashes in the light, and the blue of its face seems even darker and more rich in colour. It seems fitting that I would be looking up at a sundial, given how I had spent so much of the day before musing about time and the past within the halls of the British Museum. Here, right in the open, this comparatively small monument to time stands straight and tall to remind me of each fleeting moment.

Carpe diem.

These words echo through her head as she races down the winding, cobbled streets of London. Her boots echo and clatter against the stones, and she curses the loud soles, wishing them to silence themselves. Oh, that she could disappear within the shadows, but no, the agents would find her nevertheless. They would emerge from the echoes and take hold of her.

Her heart skipped a beat, knowing the horrid fate that awaited it if the agents took hold of her. How one of their hands would plunge into her chest, grasp at the beating organ and squeeze down hard, harder, harder…until death bloomed within the cavity of her ribcage in that place where a heart used to be. She turns around the corner of the obscure passage so quickly that imageshe nearly topples over, nearly barrels into a couple that makes their way towards their awaiting carriage. She doesn’t apologize. She doesn’t have the time.

Flash.

There — the sun! It flashes atop the dial at the top of the great spire that sits, dead centre of the Seven Dials. It calls her home, calls her back to where she may yet be safe. That place beyond the reach of the agents, the place where her debt means nothing. That’s what they say, anyways. She’s heard the whispers: that the dials is the heart of it all, the heart of Time itself. There time is everything and nothing, and the Chronagents have no sway. They cannot cross the border into the heart of their power, for fear that they themselves will be ripped apart.

Lungs are on fire, she is so close…so very close. A shout behind her, she’s right there — she leaps for the spire…

It could be easy to get turned around here in the Seven Dials, but it’s rather like the old saying of “All roads lead to Rome,” because I always figure I can turn around and find my way back to this intersection. There is, as Dickens said, “enough around [me] to keep [my] curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time” here in the Seven Dials, though my destination is elsewhere. I am headed towards a different end, yet the Dials is a place I feel drawn to visit, as if the spire at its centre is a magnet, drawing this poor iron-blooded human in.

I imagine the world that Ms. Shannon creates in her series, where past and future meet in strange harmonic dissonance, and when I look around at the intersection of the Seven Dials, it all makes sense. This is an immortal city, where things are always changing and shifting, yet the past remains. It is more than visual, it is palpable, like a thin sheet of phyllo lain atop another to continue building and adding. It brings everything together more tightly, turning the individual into the collective, and yet should one individual within the middle fail, it all crumbles apart in the end.

A bell rings to toll the hour and take my own passage out of the Dials, out of the world of the clairvoyants and syndicates from a fictional past-like future. I carry on, shoes clacking on the stones, and smile at this place that feels weirdly like home.

A Shattered Visage Lies

The sands brush across her face, soft and warm, granules coating her skin in a glittering layer of pale dust. A few paces before her, two great trunks of dark stone rise higher, higher towards the clear azure sky. Heat from the sun beats down hard, throwing harsh, glaring light onto the imageruined, shattered visage that crumbles, half-forgotten in the desert.

But she remembers. She remembers when time was different, when gods walked the Earth and men were beautiful for their mortality. Every breath could be their last; they may yet never again see the sun rise or set upon their warm, dusty land. It truly was a tragically-beautiful time.

Until men fashioned themselves into gods. Until they demanded more and thought they deserved immortality. Oh, how she thought to curse them with that, to watch their world spin and rage and die away, falling ever more irrelevant while they themselves continued on. Only then would they realize what a horror it was to be immortal, to wish yourself away and ended and go on, ever on across the threshold of the world into the dying of the light…

Many people wander to the Egyptian treasures of the British Museum to see the famed Rosetta Stone. And while I look at it and marvel that this single slab of rock, covered in script, is the reason we have been able to decipher hieroglyphics, there are other things which seize my attention. There, just to the left stands Ozymandias himself. We may know him better as Rameses II, one of the greatest pharaohs of Egypt, but Percy Shelley immortalized him forever in the hearts of poetry-lovers as Ozymandias. imageAnd it is from that poem that this post takes its title.

I am still in a strange emotional state, forcing myself through jet-lag and the roller-coaster ride that is walking through the treasures of Greece, but I made my mum a promise to say hello to the mummies for her. Mummies hold little fascination for me, though I know that my mum has always loved them. I’m more interested in what the Egyptians built (or, rather, had built by slaves) — their monuments and structures are so easily recognizable and their sheer size is enough to marvel at. I look up into the face of Ozymandias and I don’t have to wonder if he knew whether or not he was running out of time. I think the Egyptian pharaohs knew the impact of mortality well-enough, which is why they immortalized themselves in the monuments that were built.

I search for one pharaoh more so than all the others, disappointed and unsurprised when I do not find him. He was labeled the world’s first monotheist — or at least the first ruler to institute a monotheistic state religion. He has been called a visionary, a madman, and a heretic. He was stricken from the records with such thorough diligence, that the world would have forgotten whom he was, just as the Egyptians had intended. They would have stolen the small measure of immortality that he had imagedesigned for himself.

Akhenaten.

I walk past several monuments to his father, Amenhotep III, and there is only one treasure, one piece of the Egyptian past that holds any true mention of Akhenaten…and it is of his absence, of his being stricken from this list of kings. His son achieved modern celebrity, what could have once been called the nouveau immortality before the rapid pace of the Internet age, by being discovered, tomb untouched and forgotten, in the Valley of the Kings. Tutankhamun, born as Tutankhaten; the boy king forever reduced to a glittering golden mask. His father, Akhenaten, was not so lucky, for he was reduced to nothingness, to being forgotten and abandoned, whisked away by the sands of the desert and of time.

I am amazed more at just how long ago the rule of the pharaohs was: the Ancient Greeks would have looked at the Ancient Egyptians the way that we look at the Ancient Greeks. Thousands of years passed by in the sands of Egypt, an entire empire rose and fell before the Greeks became as we remember them today.

Time stops for no one.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Steeped in the Blood of Greeks

Jet-lag still seeks to overwhelm me. To wrap me in its tight embrace and bring me down to the ground in complete and total exhaustion. I am up, I am walking. I know I must make my way through the rest of this day, to push my body further along, in order to acclimate myself to London time. This city stops for no one, nor shall Kronos stop himself for me.

I spent much of my time three years ago in the British Museum, finding its bustling halls of history a peaceful, safe haven. There were always things to see, even if I had already seen them. Even now, its magnetic pull draws me up towards its imposing imagefacade, inside the tall, metal gates, and up its concrete stairs. The glass doors and a bag-check are all that stand between myself and some of the past’s treasures.

There is one place I must go, one place that calls to me in a siren song of whispers past: the Ancient Greece exhibits. Statues to Aphrodite and Dionysos, of Naiads and Nereids. Their marble forms frozen perfectly in time, watch me as I pass, as I linger. They call to like: blood to blood, as if they sense that I am of the lineage of Hellas. And though it is but 1/4 of my bloodline, it is one to which I most often feel closest: that part of me that beats the drums of Lakedaimon and the Peloponnesos.

The Elgin Marbles are where I feel it strongest — that intense, pull of the past. That white hall, where sit treasures steeped in the blood of Greeks. Birthed to be the cause of conflict between Sparta and Athens: paid for by Sparta, those funds misused by Athens, later stolen by England. My feelings roil like a tempest on the Aegean, swirling dangerously so that I feel the lump in my throat. When I look at the treasures imageof my own people, sitting her cold and far away from home, something pierces to my soul.

And I am there, the Mediterranean sun upon my skin, sweat trickling down to sting my eyes with the salt. War has come to Athens, the cries of the starving a drowning cacophony in my ears. I stand on the bow of the warship, this great navy of Lakedaimonians, their own war chants shattering across the Athenian harbour. There is nothing but salt: sweat, tears, blood, and the sea.

But there, high, high up on the point of the mighty Acropolis, I see it, the thing that gleams like a spark in the night. Where men and gods converse in open halls of white marble…marble bought with Spartan gold. And look what good that gold has done them now: where is their mighty armada? Where is their fleet to oppress us further?

Where is the glory of Athens now?

imageThe cries vanish, blown away on the breath of the wind and the song is different. It echoes through my core, strumming at my being. This is a song I know intimately, the song of grief — deep, national grief. This is the grief of an entire nation, the kind of grief that leaves nothing to imagination. And yet this grief is not mine, it is not ours — not yet. Kronos, that god of time shows me and I see the Acropolis fall, its treasures plundered, dismantled. I see them sitting, cold and alone in a foreign land of no sun, no salt and no sea. The light of the gods drains from within their marble house and it all goes dark.

And suddenly I see we are running out of time, rising and falling like the winter wheat. And I do not know what it is we must do to survive, do not know how to stop the spinning threads of the Moirai. I lift my eyes to the sky, to the arc of lightning that blazes from suddenly-appeared dark clouds to strike at the crown of the Parthenon.

imageI do wonder if the Ancient Greeks ever knew they were running out of time — every day coming closer to just running out of time. Whether it was Alexander or Rome or
the Turks or whomever came next. Their time was over, and they crippled themselves with the Peloponnesian War, proving once again that this was not a unified country of Greece, but a land teeming with Greeks: their city-states were countries in and of themselves.

United they stood, divided they fell.

When I look at this marble, I see the clean white awash with blood, swimming in the sacrifice of so many Greeks of the past. This is the lump that rises in my throat, the imagetightening in my chest. This is why I am drawn to these treasures of my past, like moth to flame. I stand, I stare, I drink it in. I cannot touch, though I wish I could. Just have one moment to physically touch this part of my history, to make complete the connection that echoes maddeningly in my ears, louder and louder every second that I stand and stare…

I arrest my gaze, feel torn away like a bandage too soon and too fast from a still-bleeding wound. Oh yes, it is steeped in the blood of Greeks. And do not doubt that the Greeks still see that blood on the marble, blinking at how rapidly the world turns. At how quickly we all just run out of time.