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The Raven Boys, at Long Last

The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, September 2012
Reviewed from ARC

So, I’m ready to talk about The Raven Boys.

I’ve read it twice. I really really like it. Maggie Stiefvater clearly grew up drinking from the same story well as I did, and this is one that hits pretty much all my buttons. Also, I’d like to be Blue, and I definitely had my own raven boys, once upon a time ago, although Blue’s are way better.

But that’s all heart. What about the head response? Stiefvater garnered a silver last year. Is The Raven Boys her shot at the gold?

I’m… not sure. So won’t you join me as I wonder, and, since this is an official Pyrite* nominee, let’s just make this the first Pyrite post of the year, as well as the first post of the new year — meaning I expect comments of epic length.

Just so we have them out there, some stats: this grabbed 32.8% of the Pyrite shortlist votes, putting it 7th on the list in terms of votes. It’s got 5 starred reviews (and as far as I can tell, no review at all from the holdout, The Horn Book) and landed on 3 year end lists (according to Jen J’s astounding data collection).

The premise is fantastic — it’s sort of the opposite of a paranormal romance, in that there can be no kissing and there are way too many boys and they’re all pretty fascinating (although, okay, also seriously messed up). Also, death. Lots of death here, past and present and future, all of it shaping the tale in ways that resonate and reflect very nicely. And the way Stiefvater has rooted the whole in all sorts of myth and legend but chosen myths that are not too familiar, and not at all played out, gives this a nice freshness balanced by some depth — there is real history laced in, or at least historically based legends, and they’re really neat and potential rabbit holes for readers to fall into.

So my doubts are definitely not coming from the bare bones of the story: great bone structure, as they say.

And the series thing is not my issue here (unlike, say, in The Diviners, where I agree with Clair that there is a definite sense that you are reading set up for a later volume, or last year’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone); there is no question that there is unfinished business (that ending zinger revelation of Ronan’s was a fantastic cliffhanger), and I would probably raise the question of whether it works as a work unto itself if I were on the RealCommittee, but I found this one felt more open than unfinished, which I find less of a problem when I’m assessing literary excellence.

(I know someone — and I can think of a few specific someones who comment regularly — is going to take issue with this, and I’m not sure I’ve really managed to articulate my thinking about series clearly enough, despite having come back to it again and again. So let me try yet again. When a book is clearly a book 1 in the sense of all set up and little payoff, even if it has a monster of the week storyline that resolves itself, I find it a big limitation in Printz terms. Because I just don’t know. It might be a brilliant set up with a perfect payoff. Or it might not. But I only have half the pieces to the puzzle, so I’m not sure if the puzzle will be great when all is said and done, and a lot of those are often edge pieces, so it’s all frame and no picture. In this case, it’s as if the pieces we have are all center pieces, and while the puzzle will keep building out, I can already see something that stands on it’s own as an image and it’s a captivating one.)

(Although having said all that, some — most? — of the Ronan-Declan subplotting must be pure set up, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense in the narrative otherwise, and as such it creates some holes in the writing since it doesn’t work as it is. Puzzle center with still a few pieces missing, I guess, and that might be a sticker death-knell when I start lining this up against other 2012 books. But I’m not there yet.)

So where do I think this does — maybe — fall down? Part of me wants to say characterization, although it’s not that simple.

Blue is great. How can you not love her, really? She’s a good person, quite ordinary despite attempts to the contrary, and the descriptions that bring her to life are pitch perfect, as in the description of Blue’s hair: “The end result was a spiky, uneven ponytail populated by escaped chunks and mismatched clips; it looked eccentric and unkempt. Blue had worked hard to get it that way.”

And maybe that, right there, is the problem. Everyone is just a little too perfect, as if they are all playing their parts. Like the characters in The Truman Show, they are better than real. Poor little rich boy Gansey, who just doesn’t get it; Adam of the trailer home and alcoholic father and two jobs to put himself through private school (ok, Adam’s problem may actually be a central casting issue, but at least by the end of the book that has changed); Irish Ronan with the mysterious dead father; and — no, Noah is something else entirely, and actually brilliantly done, in every way, from his opening line (“I’ve been dead for seven years”) to his last line (“I’m still not eating pizza”). But the boys as a whole definitely are better and brighter than reality.

And yes, I know it’s fiction. But there’s a slight aura of adolescent girl fantasy about these boys (or at least, my adolescent girl fantasies, and all those dreadful Mary Sue stories I penned), and I’m not sure if that’s a strength or a weakness or neither, although it bothered me. Too glossy and shiny, and in ways that I don’t think make the book better, but then it is called The Raven Boys, and certainly I fell half in love with every one of them, so maybe this is exactly how they should be?

And then you’ve got the women. Inscrutable Neeve, sad and mysterious Persephone, flirty Orla, cantankerous Calla — and others, whom we as readers never even meet (a Jimi is mentioned early on, although I never got around to checking the name against the final copy, and then there are several mentions of aunts and cousins, who live in Blue’s house, or at least hang around there, but whom we never see at all). All the women sort of blurred together except when they stood out, but they stood out as collections of quirks, lacking substance. (Although I did think that the story about Maura and Persephone back in the day, maybe right before they meet Blue’s father, might make a great extra, especially given the current e-extra short companion trend. I’d buy that extra.) They work as an idea, but I’m not sure the writing of them really does the idea justice.

I also have doubts about the plotting and pacing, and whether some of the passages entirely make sense, especially in the second half of the book, but not concerns that are any deeper than the ones about certain aspects of Code Name Verity, which I think is among the year’s best, so while I could discuss the plot and pacing concerns in more detail, I don’t actually think they are significant enough flaws to be the reason to drop this from top 5 consideration, unlike the characterization issues.

I don’t have concerns about the prose, though; Stiefvater has a sure hand with clean, descriptive prose and, as in the passage I quoted about Blue’s hair, I find her writing economical and tight, with nicely structured sentences. It’s not prose that calls attention to itself, but when you stop to take it apart, there’s quite a lot to admire.

So there you have it. I have mostly good things to say (with, sorry, a lot of run on sentences), but I worry that this a hollow book, with some essential thing missing at the core — some emotional depth is never quite reached, and the only place I can point to as being at fault is the characterization.

Or maybe it is book 1 syndrome and we just don’t get the emotional payoff until later in the quartet, and what feels lacking, in a somewhat ineffable way, is actually just the result of this being only a part of a larger work?

Comments are open, so what say you? Does it deserve the gold? Silver? Fool’s gold? (What does an honor book in the Pyrite get? Nickel? Is there fool’s silver?)

*The Pyrite Printz, or Pyrite, is the Someday My Printz Will Come mock Printz deliberation, and should not in any way be confused with YALSA’s Michael L. Printz Award, often referred to here as the RealPrintz or Printz. Our predictions, conversations, and speculation about potential RealPrintz contenders and winners reflect only our own best guesses and are not affiliated with YALSA or the RealPrintz committee. You probably figured that out on your own, but we like to make it clear!

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. So, I said a bunch of this over at crossreferencing, but pacing was a serious issue for me on this one. I listened to it which probably exacerbated the issue, but when it’s disc 5 of 10 and I’m wondering when anything’s going to actually happen, I think that’s a problem. Everything up to that point felt like setup for the series and characters. I absolutely adored The Scorpio Races and felt like the somewhat slower pacing really worked for it, but didn’t think it was as suited to this story. Loved the reveals about Noah and how tightly that was put together. I’m super excited for the next book and thought the second half of this one was excellent, but just can’t get over that first half. However when I look back at my notes fr Code Name Verity I have noted that the first half of that one dragged for me as well. So maybe this holds up better this year than I think. I completely agree with Karyn about the details and writing being so good. I particularly remember that same bit about Blue’s hair and how clear a pixture that little painted of what kind of person Blue is. Sol somebody convince me that the pacing/setup issue is not a problem!

  2. TeenReader says

    Hmmmm. Jen’s comment made me think I didn’t give this enough of a chance. But the first half was really sub-par. There was nothing awful, but I can’t think of any area that it was very good in. With such a strong year, I dismissed it as a non-contender. I probably dismissed it to quickly” but if you can’t do anything exceptional with 200 pages, that’s a huge problem.

  3. I loved this book, but I do think that taking it alone, it doesn’t stand up. Not because of the usual first book issue–I agree that the end feels open rather than unfinished, to the point where I double-checked that there was another book coming. I actually think that it’s precisely the fact that the characters have that gloss that Karyn mentions–I can easily see Stiefvater setting that up deliberately and then disrupting it thoroughly in the next books. But since I don’t have those books, how can I say that? It’s not something any committee member in their right mind would be able to use, which means that as it stands, I do think the characterization is a flaw.

    Now, partly I’m not quite sure why I think it’s a flaw–there are other larger-than-life characters who I adore (Eugenides, Miles Vorkosigan, etc). Why did Gansey and co not work quite so well? I want to say that they are both too much and too little–too shiny and not enough themselves. But I’m not at all sure that’s really what I mean.

    I loved that Blue is really part of her weird family, that she doesn’t want to be just like everybody else. That’s something we don’t see very often and I want more of it.

    (Can you all tell that I really wanted to just plain love this book and am bothered by the fact that I can’t quite put my finger on what’s off?)

  4. When I scrutinize a book’s pacing, it’s because I’m either feeling bored with it or because it has whirled by so quickly that I’m going, “Huh? Wait a minute…” During the long set up, RAVEN BOYS offered so much in the way of mysteries and magic and characters and sheer beautiful prose that I never felt bored. Things *were* happening, even if it wasn’t action involving guns and helicopters. So my feeling is that the pacing was *not* a particular problem.

  5. The pacing didn’t bother me, but then neither did the pacing in CODE NAME VERITY. The point about characterization though, I think is well taken and I agree that the Ronan-Declan subplot just cut off kind of abruptly. I really like the metaphor of the puzzle, Karen and I think in the end the way the first-in-a-series curse plays out for this one is that I didn’t get as strong a sense of theme as in some of the other contenders. Because I can’t see the big picture yet, I’m not sure what the big story and big thoughts are. This was one of my favorites of the year, but I don’t think I see it going the distance to win the RealPrintz.
    Oh, and Horn Book did review it this month, but it did not get a star.

  6. I actually liked the pacing in this book. You had time to digest every character, even the ones you couldn’t quite place (i.e. all of the psychics in Blue’s family), and you got a real lay of the land. I liked that the story was slower (not SLOW). I remember thinking while I read that I had questions about the story as it was going along. The pacing gave me time to sort out my thoughts.

    As far as discerning the women in Blue’s house – I chose not to get hung up on who was who, because to me they felt like MacBeth’s three witches (figuratively speaking) or even the witches in a a Wrinkle in Time – they were themselves and each other all at once. This collectivism in their characters perhaps doesn’t make them stand out as strong individual players, but I guess it depends on how you view their function in the story. To me, they know far more than they are telling Blue and the guys. Their collective whispering, evasion and ominous way of behaving comes off more to me as if they are a kind of inverse of a supernatural guide. They don’t exactly guide – for psychics, I think they spend a large part of the story not portending the future or in fact clouding it.

    With the characterization, I do agree that it is problematic. While I love the characters, so far they haven’t really gone anywhere. Perhaps Adam has made a serious choice about who he is for himself and in relation to his friends. I think enough was said about his character to show the reader development from beginning to end. Personal opinion – he’s the bad apple in the bunch haha. Regarding Blue, Gansey and Ronan – yes, they are underdeveloped at this point. I don’t think that’s a flaw in the writing, rather a deliberate choice on the part of the author. Just the same, it doesn’t stand alone. As far as Noah, I think his arc is finished. I saw him as more of a plot device anyway.

    Thematically, I think this story does have quite a bit to say right out of the gate even if it does have an open ending. I think it’s definitely an examination of friendship (even Blue’s relationship to her mother is more about friendship). You have Blue, who becomes friends with this weird cast of guys, who have a strange friendship with individual nuances. Within the guys’ sphere only, I can already pinpoint resentment, control, loyalty, wariness, objectification, fascination. All of these things then reflect back on each of their relationships to Blue, who I weirdly see as kind of dating all of them, though no one actually dates anybody. I like the complexity of all of this. You see the choices friends have to make in order to remain friends or not remain friends, depending on how this book goes. I don’t think this book necessarily should win the Printz. I think Code Name Verity is the strongest title this year, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if the Raven Boys did win. I don’t think a book needs to be flawless to merit a medal.

  7. Barbara Moon says

    I have a RealCommittee question. I noted that Jen referred to listening to the audio edition. I had always assumed that the committee used only print editions – and the final print edition – no ARCs-for their evaluations. Is this correct?

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Hopefully someone else can chime in with their memories; mine is that we had to read the print version of the final copy at some point, but we definitely read and nominated from ARCs (there would not be enough time with the fall books otherwise) and that the question of audiobooks is at the Chair’s discretion. I’m not an audiobook person so I honestly don’t remember what, if any, discussion my Printz committee had about audiobooks, but I do remember on BBYA that the decision was that listening was ok as a starting point (you have to get through all those books somehow, and for those who commute by car it helps a lot, I hear) — but you were expected to read the print copy as well.

    • To clarify, ARCs and audiobooks are allowed if they’re used in conjunction with the finished print copy. There’s nothing that says that committee members are barred from reading ARCs or listening to audiobooks. But yes, the evaluation should be of the finished print copy.

      • Elizabeth Burns says

        my personal interpretation of that has been, if you cannot get over the condition of the ARC nor the way a narrator speaks in an audiobook, then avoid them both, since they are going to color your reading experience to a way that makes it impossible for you to evaluate the final copy. If the errors/changes in ARCs don’t bother you, or a narrator doesn’t add/lessen, it works as a good first read. it depends on the reader.

  8. Barbara Moon says

    I enjoyed Stievfater’s portrayal of time. The past (legend of a dead king, a roommate who is dead, past hurts and pain suffered by various characters) and future (clairvoyant mother and ancient prophecies) are woven into a story placed in the present. The past and future are really aspects of now. I find her exploration of time fascinating.

  9. Cool observation Barbara! I hadn’t considered the merging of past, present and future in this book as something to explore thematically. That’s another thing I think that will be explained further as the series goes on. Right now, this aspect of the book doesn’t really have anything larger to say, but I expect something cool will come out of it in the future. I find with this book that I have thought about its possibilities for far longer after finishing it than anything else I’ve read from 2012. Going back to Code Name Verity, I don’t find myself examining it as much after reading because it felt cohesive and complete. Once you found all of the nuances, you could put it away. Largely I’m sure because it’s not part of a series. With the Raven Boys, you are obviously compelled into conjecture. All the same, the conjecture is amazing. Particularly when Blue and the guys are confronted with scenes of their future selves.

    Does anybody else want to talk about this book’s relationship to the Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper? I’ve been wanting to look at it since I finished Raven Boys, and I’ve found nothing online related to it. I find the relationship really interesting.

  10. Elizabeth Burns says

    This is one of my favorite books of the year. But is it a possible Printz?

    I didn’t see the boys as “too perfect” (but to be honest, I’ve had that reaction to other books and other characters, many times, so totally get the reaction.). Gansey and Ronan were both entitled & arrogant enough to not be perfect; Adam’s rage and jealousy, likewise, made him more real. For Blue & her hair and outfits — that I actually found a bit annoying (need to reread but it was a bit too “you know how I’m original? I don’t dress like everyone else!” than “I dress the way I like” for my tastes). (It also seems to be something that I’ve read more in the past year than in previous, the care & attention, in different ways, to what someone is wearing in a “this defines me” way.)

    I like that we didn’t get quite the sense of the extended family — I feel like other people are indeed floating around the house, but we won’t be introduced until we need to be.

    I also loved that a gun was shown on the mantle piece, as it were, and never used. Or, rather, EpiPen. I’m sure at some point it’ll be needed, but for now, it was put aside — part of Gansey’s overall past and health condition, but that it wasn’t used during this book, I loved that.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Liz says, “Gansey and Ronan were both entitled & arrogant enough to not be perfect; Adam’s rage and jealousy, likewise, made him more real.” But look at Gansey’s entitlement. I loved his bafflement about money, but isn’t it almost too much? He’s so perfectly baffled, so exactly made of privilege, so nice. Ronan’s anger struck me the same way. Cinematic, that’s it. They are larger than life and shiny and I love them but they do seem just a little too scripted, and that’s what I mean by perfect. And Adam, as I said, has a strong whiff on Central Casting until the end. Noah, though, I did find very very well done. And not too scripted.

      I am with you in appreciating that the epi-pen –and Blue’s first kiss — are still waiting in the wings, but I had forgotten the epi-pen and have to concede that it’s another unfinished (rather than open) element that make this less of a contender, because we don’t have enough info yet to know if it’s buildup or MacGuffin or what.

      • Elizabeth Burns says

        For Gansey, I didnt think it was as much about money (though its the result of money) but his belief in himself as the leader — that of course people will do what he says and follows. I’m thinking of the first time Blue sees them in the diner and all I could think was, man, he needs to be taken down a peg or two. Ditto for Ronan: part of what he’s doing comes from his security blanket of weath, and that contrasts with Adam’s total lack. Just different views of them, I guess.

        For the epi-pen, I wonder if/how when it’ll be used!

  11. There are a lot of things going for this book as have been outlined in detail above, and add me to the list of those who appreciates Barbara Moon’s “time” observation. Great catch.

    However, I also think that the RealCommittee will have a very hard time with what we’re euphemistically calling the “openness” of the ending. There is no ending. I mean, of course, there is, but, sheesh. Even if there is a *perception* on the committee that this novel is in some way unfinished may work against The Raven Boys as a foil recipient.

  12. I’m really glad someone else brought up the EpiPen. It’s been awhile now since I read the book, so I may need to revisit. The EpiPen thing was one that has stuck out to me and it actually quite bothered me that it was never used. I felt like it was such a red herring and it nagged at me because I wanted to know when it would come into play. The fact that it never did in this book makes me feel that the book was incomplete. It really adds to the discussion about how this book is a first in a series, in my opinion.

    I feel that there was so much build up about the kiss and if she was going to kill Gansey and how he was going to die that when none of that was resolved at the end of the book, it left me a little disappointed because the book led me to believe in the first half that it was one thing when in fact it turned out to be something else. But the book as a whole was truly wonderful and I still really loved this book, but that was my general impression about it and why I feel it doesn’t quite cut it for the Printz. Again, haven’t read it in a while and maybe I’ll feel different after a revisit.

    • Elizabeth Burns says

      so funny that I had the opposite reaction to the EpiPen and Gansey dying! I thought “oh this is going to happen in this book, b/c we’re shown the pen and seen the vision” and then it didn’t. I thought it was a good fake out to those of us like myself all too guess what happens in a book b/c of how many have been read.

  13. This was absolutely hands down one of my favorites of the year, and I’d be happy to see it getting the silver (Team Verity for the Gold), but I do see objections based on open-ness and characterization. Except Noah; I agree TOTALLY on Noah’s awesomeness and the awesomeness of handling Noah.

    I do wonder if anyone else found this a remarkable “comfortable” read, as came up a bit in relation to Keeping the Castle? This one didn’t feel as much like a reread as KtC but it still felt familiar–perhaps because I’m a regular fantasy reader and reasonable familiar with The Dark is Rising, ley lines, etc., but also perhaps because of the simplicity of the writing? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this–it’s beautiful simple writing and it’s an absolutely enjoyable engrossing book, but I found it intersting.

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