In late April, as the bees woke from their winter’s sleep around Chicago, and spring flowers bloomed, Maggie Stiefvater‘s The Raven King was published, bringing the Raven Cycle, in all its heartbreak and glory, to its conclusion. We’d known from the beginning–from the first pages of The Raven Boys, first book of the cycle–that Blue would kiss her true love, and he would die. We knew shortly thereafter that her true love would be the inestimable Gansey, that Raveniest of Raven boys, and that Gansey would die. Anticipating The Raven King became almost a painful thing, made more difficult the longer the wait stretched: we could not know, we addicts, what would happen, but we knew Gansey would die, of Blue’s kiss. I think I read the last page first, when finally my copy arrived, promptly on April 26.
The first book of the Raven Cycle was published a little less than a month into my second year in grad school, coming out September 18 of 2012, in the midst of an ugly contract negotiation and my own desperate quest to 1) turn people out for bargaining (we have power together, after all, and precious little when we stand divided) and 2) to get my exam reading in, all while taking courses and teaching a heavy courseload. I would take my exams–in Colonial Spanish American literature (essentially the beginning of coloniality through the wars of independence), in Medieval Spanish literature, and in Spanish American literature, 1898-present–in the spring of ’13.
It was, all around, a terrible year,1 brightened now and again by a new book or a concert at the performing arts venue down the street from my apartment. Maybe it was in part due to my own stress that I fell so in love with the Raven Cycle‘s crew; I’m not going to psychoanalyze myself here, since I never took pysch and my area of literary theory is actually postcolonial.2 I’ve also been a Stiefvater reader for some time; I was, as it were, quite ready for The Raven Boys.
The Raven Cycle has, despite its issues (see note 2), a lot going for it. There are, to name just a few of its attractions, richly developed characters, believable magic (it is totally possible), strong worldbuilding, and terrific cars. Henrietta itself, lay line and all, becomes a character in the Cycle. The cars are characters; the land is a character; the dead walk with the living, and the living truly do live.
Blue and Co. haven’t learned this yet, but they will. <insert evil laughter here>
There is Blue Sargent, whose father is only fully revealed for what he is, good and bad and cowardly, in The Raven King: Blue, whom Stiefvater allows to have insecurities and vulnerabilities in concert with her strength: fiery Blue, Gansey’s true love. Blue is catalyst and glue, all while being a smartass kid on the cusp of adulthood. She’s an imperfect teenager, and while that isn’t always popular, I quite appreciate it. (Let’s face it: we humans are a messy lot, good and terrible, heroic and petty, all rolled into our awkward human bodies.)
There is angry Ronan, the truth of whose sexuality unfurls slowly, until he could never be anything but gay,3 and until I was as afraid of what would happen to him and to Adam as I was of Gansey’s looming death. I loved Ronan from the beginning; I was ever so glad that, in its ending, Raven King gave him–and Adam–a chance at happiness in the future, in which the scars of their uniquely ugly pasts could, perhaps, fade. I wasn’t sure whether to rejoice for Noah as he slid from the world of the living or to mourn him. (I’m still not, really.) And there is fragile Adam, broken and remade, strong as the land around him. I didn’t like him as much, when he was lusting after Blue, as I came to like him: but then, I didn’t know him as well then, either.
And Gansey? I have a strange relationship with him. He’s a difficult guy to like, in many ways–his family’s politics are opposed to mine; they are rich, and have always been so, while money has a way of running through the generations like sand in an hourglass in my family, sliding out that hole in the bottom that, apparently, no one ever thought to plug. But, like Gansey, I come of old stock, and I too learned to say that I was very well, thank you, even when I wasn’t. There is a quote from The Dream Thieves that, strange as it may be, means so much to me I’ve permanently left a bookmark to guard the spot. It comes after Ronan texts Gansey with the news that he’s total Gansey’s Pig; nonetheless, when asked, Gansey says everything is fine, because:
There were no circumstances under which he would’ve answered that question in any other way. Possibly if he’d discovered a family member had died. Possibly if one of his limbs had been separated from his body.
∼Maggie Stiefvater, The Dream Thieves, 292-293
For there, you see, is a tiny story of my life: no matter what has happened in one’s life, one smiles in public, and does not let on. It simply isn’t done. And so I have worked through extreme pain, through health crises, through debilitating panic attacks, through deaths, with a smile that was sometimes a grimace, for it is what one does. I think that was when I really began to love Gansey as a character–we had nothing in common, really, yet we had that.
The Raven Cycle was, for me, never really about Glyndŵr.4 It was a quest in which the questing was probably more important than the arriving (which Thoreau would probably appreciate, since he thought that wisdom was in part “find[ing] the journey’s end in every step of the road“). I love that our leading folk5–Ronan and Adam, Gansey and Blue, Chang (despite appearing only in books three and four), and even Noah, the dead boy–are teenagers who will (with the exception, of course, of poor Noah) grow into young adults who will go through that amazing phase in which they know All The Things while simultaneously knowing, just like Jon Snow, nothing at all. It was appropriate, somehow, for the Cycle to end with a death and a resurrection. In truth I’d rather it had stopped there, with the resurrection, and the nameless hope it entailed.
For our heroes go onward, ceaselessly borne, one hopes, into the future, wherein someday they shall grow up, and realize they know nothing, and become the humans they were meant to be, and drive the Pig once more down the lay lines of Henrietta.
For my fellow review readers:
- The Raven Boys, published September 18, 2012
- The Dream Thieves, published September 17, 2013
- Blue Lily, Lily Blue, published October 21, 2014
- The Raven King, published April 26, 2016.
1 But! The joke was on me! It totally got even worse the next two years.
2 There are actually any number of ways in which I could analyze the Cycle using postcolonial theory, of course; like all favorites it is problematic, in places such as its depictions of race and whiteness (see this Tumblr post for some discussion of representation and whiteness among characters), in its carrying of a white Welsh king to a land long inhabited by a group of people who are then never mentioned (which is an amazing example of coloniality in narrative, really). But that is, right now, another post, for another time.
3 Other folks have written about Ronan and having a gay central character in a massively popular young adult series; they include this, this, and this (I really like this, possibly because there are Many Words and I am drawn to Many Words); Stiefvater also addresses, in this archived Tumblr post, why Ronan never officially “comes out.”
4 You think I could leave this opportunity to add more info? Haha suckers! He has a character page on the Raven Boys wikia; a BBC site; and a super messy Wikipedia page, among other things.
5 Our supporting characters were, generally, quite good as well–though they got a little wonky at times.