Monday, July 22, 2013

Audiobook Review: THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.

But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.
Audiobooks should come with warning labels. I downloaded a free copy of the audio for The Raven Boys from AudioSync as part of their free summer promotion. I honestly didn't have high hopes of actually liking the book, despite the hype going around the blogosphere, but it was free, so why not?

I nearly stopped listening a few minutes in. The narrator was a slow-speaking Southern man, and the opening chapter was filled with seances and ghosts and fortune-telling. Not my cup of tea. I almost unplugged my headphones right then and there. Luckily, I was on a walk and was still several blocks from my house, so I kept listening. And listening. And listening.

Audiobooks should come with warning labels. How else could I have prepared myself for how utterly obsessed I would become with this book?

I don't even know what to do with this book. It was so different from anything I'd read before. The story starts with Blue, a Virginia-bred high school girl and the only person in her entire family who isn't a psychic. Instead, the only "power" Blue can boast of is her ability to make the energy around her louder. She is, as she is described by one character, the table with the outlet that everyone fights over at Starbucks. It's an ability very useful to her family, but otherwise pretty unspectacular.

Though Blue is the character we meet first, this is not her story alone. Balancing out her and her family are the Raven Boys, Aglionby Academy students so nicknamed for the raven emblem sewn to their school uniforms. Despite their different backgrounds, Blue is irrevocably linked to one Raven Boy in particular, a rich and charismatic young man named Gansey, when she sees his death predicted in an old churchyard on St. Mark's Eve. As Blue searches for Raven Boy Gansey to warn him of his predicted death, Gansey and his friends embark on a quest of their own to find the resting place of the legendary Welsh King Glendower. Legend has it that the person to find and wake Glendower from his enchanted sleep will be granted one wish of unimaginable value.

The above is the crux of the plot of The Raven Boys in its sparsest form. Blue wants to save Gansey, who will die before the year is up and may be her one true love. Gansey and his friends want to find Glendower. But this book is so much more. It has betrayal and secrets and lies. It has amazing friendships and the first bloom of young love. It has class wars and domestic abuse and death. I loved it all.


First, let me just say that the narrator totally made the audiobook for me. Though his style takes some getting used to, I can't imagine discovering the book any other way. Will Patton's slow drawl is perfect for this book. He personifies the mystical South with his quiet, easy speech patterns, and the way he contorts his voice to portray each character is incredible. I especially enjoyed the leaps Mr. Patton made between Adam's soft, gentle country boy accent, Ronan's harsh, angular rebel boy tones, and the deep, bitter snarl of the boys' professor, Barrington Lynch.

I was completely drawn in by the world Ms. Stiefvater creates. While I know there's no such thing as "the mystical South" setting that the author and others choose to employ, I found myself enchanted by the little town of Henrietta. Every description, every turn of phrase, every word choice felt so carefully selected. Several of the figures of speech that Ms. Stiefvater employed make me blink in surprise at how unexpected and perfect they were. There were times later in the novel that I felt more restraint could have been used, but in the beginning I adored every moment.

The characters, though, are what make this book. The very first time the narration jumped from Blue to Gansey, I thought I would be disappointed. Small-town, spiky-haired Blue is so alive and fun. I wanted to know more about her and her strange family. I didn't want to leave. But then I met Gansey. Powerful, charismatic, clueless Gansey. With his carefully coiffed hair, pressed Aglionby sweater, and winning politician's smile, he is a character that I expected to hate. And yet, the more I learned, the more I liked him. Throughout the book, Blue compares the perceived Gansey to the Gansey she saw in the churchyard - Real Gansey. Real Gansey is quiet and sometimes moody. Real Gansey carries around a stuffed leather journal filled with notes about his obsessive hunt for Glendower. Real Gansey wears spectacles. Real Gansey is a protector. Real Gansey isn't afraid to die.

Though The Raven Boys is set in the South and focuses on the hunt for a Welsh king, it is an Arthurian  tale at its heart. Strong, persuasive Gansey is Arthur, the golden boy with a lion's heart. Blue, once they finally meet, is his Merlin. She holds the power. She makes things happen. And though she hasn't told him, she has foreseen his end. The other Raven Boys are his knights. Each of them charmed me in their own way. We visit Adam's perspective nearly as often as we visit Gansey's. The outcast of Aglionby, Adam works three jobs to pay his way through school. He is Gansey's strongest supporter, his right-hand man. Words cannot express my love for Adam and the sweet, tentative romance he shares with Blue. But he is also a boy with demons of his own that I fear will threaten the others in future books. Ronan, on the other hand, displays his demons proudly. Pugilistic, foul-mouthed, and reckless, he enjoys making people wince. Between the two boys, it's hard to say which will prove the most dangerous in the end. Which will destroy our teenaged Arthur, his loyal but obstinately proud Lancelot or his dark and dangerous Mordred?

The Raven Boys - attribution
I cannot adequately express how much I enjoyed this book. The characters were fantastic, the storyline was riveting, and the magic was awe-inspiring. Seriously, Cabeswater blew my mind. Just you all wait. And I've never read a book that delighted me so with each narration shift. Each character is so very dear to me. There were, however, a few small points that earned my displeasure.

First, the loose ends. The Raven Boys is the first in a proposed four-book series. Clearly, there will be loose ends, and that's fine. However, so many different lines of inquiry were laid out in this first book, and not one was tied up. Not. One. Seriously, Maggie, would a little closure have killed you? Because lack of it is certainly killing me.

With that are the several seemingly purposeless characters that drifted through the novel. I assume that their purposes will be revealed in later books, but right now they seem to be simply taking up space. For instance, Ronan's brother appears maybe two or three times and then disappears without any real impact on the story. Sure, he makes an impact on Ronan and helps explain why Ronan is the way he is (sort of), but he in no way furthered the plot. The same with Ronan's brother's girlfriend who appeared briefly in two scenes and then was gone, leaving me with nothing but misplaced suspicious feelings. Even the fourth Raven Boy, Noah, lacked agency. Don't get me wrong, I adore Noah just as much as the other boys, and I understand why he vanishes for large swaths of the book, but I felt like Ms. Stiefvater could have been a little more evenhanded in doling out his scenes. His presence was so important in the latter half of the book, but couldn't he have been made to seem less of a waste in the former?

I also didn't appreciate the language or the fortune-telling mumbo-jumbo, though I understand the reasons for both. At least with a finished copy I'll be able to Sharpie out some of Ronan's crasser sentences.

Now I sit, waiting anxiously for The Dream Thieves to release. I have so many questions, so many desires. Will my unauthorized ship of choice be allowed to set sail? (Blue and Adam FOREVAAAAH, y'all!) What will become of Gansey? Will we ever learn the truth about Ronan's family? Will Blue ever find her dad? GAH! Please, go run and read this book so you can wait in agonized suspense with me.

Points Added For: A fantastic narrator choice, excellent handling of multiple points of view, atmospheric setting, amazing characters, gorgeous phrases.

Points Subtracted For: Loose ends, Barrington feeling oddly incidental (as opposed to Neeve, who is truly present and creepy), underutilized characters.

Good For Fans Of: A more mature version of Bridge to Terabithia, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, The Diviners by Libba Bray (so says Goodreads), small-town Deep South.

Notes For Parents: Language, fortune-telling (Tarot cards, scrying, etc.), murder.

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