The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater

This is not the sort of book I usually read. The hint of anything paranormal is enough to make me abandon almost any book. However, the holiday season with its memories of childhood sent me back to the sort of Young Adult books I loved back then: stories of ordinary kids stumbling across a bit of magic.

Blue Sargent has her hands full with school, waitressing at Milo’s pizza place, walking dogs, tutoring children, and various other activities. You might think her an ordinary teen if it weren’t for her mother and the other women—aunt, cousin, friends—who sometimes or mostly live in the house at 300 Fox Way, all of them psychics, true ones, though as Blue’s mother says, “‘accurate but not specific'”. However, Maura and her fellow psychics have no trouble being specific about Blue’s future: if she kisses her true love, he will die.

True love hasn’t been on the menu for Blue, and certainly not with the boys from the local prep school, Aglionby, whom she calls raven boys for the school patch on their jackets featuring a raven. When four of them show up at Milo’s and one who displays the slick grace of a president asks if she would come talk to his friend who thinks she’s cute, Blue responds with disdain.

When not in class or eating pizza, the four boys are consumed by a quest. It’s really the President’s quest but he has fired the imagination of his three friends and they willingly take on the tasks he assigns them. They want to map the ley line—one of the ancient lines of power that hippies and New Agers have been scouting for decades—that runs through this town of Henrietta, Virginia, and to discover and rouse what they think is buried there.

I found the writing extraordinary. The teens, Blue and the four boys, are vividly drawn, genuine in their actions, words and environments. Their seemingly ordinary teen-ness gives way to a deeper understanding of the way in which each is damaged, details that are fed out slowly throughout the story. And Stiefvater slips in bits of characterisation that bring them into focus. For example one of the boys is messing about with wood, and is asked what his plan is.

Ronan smiled his lizard smile. “Ramp. BMW. The goddamn moon.”

This was so like Ronan. His room inside Monmouth was filled with expensive toys, but, like a spoiled child, he ended up playing outside with sticks.

Of course, this is only one of the many facets of Ronan.

Cryptic predictions and comments by Blue’s mother and her cohorts combined with the triteness of everyday life often make scenes at home hilarious. For instance, one of them asks for grape juice to pour into a bowl to see the future. Blue holds up a jug of Cran-Grape. “‘That will work fine,'” the seer says. However, it is a death she wants to see, and the scene effortlessly shifts from silly to serious.

That is one of the great strengths of this book: the way scenes hold a range of emotions and move between them so naturally that it is only looking back that I can marvel at the tiny turning points. Often in manuscripts I see single emotions: this is the scene where he is angry; this is the one where he is tender. But we are more complex than that. We can experience a dozen emotions just walking from one room into another.

Another great strength is what Donald Maass, literary agent and author, in his recent book, Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, calls micro-tension. These are the questions and conflicts that make us keep reading page after page, long after we should have turned out the light.

Stiefvater does this in many ways, one of which is with slight asides that create a little question in the reader’s mind. For example, in a conversation between Blue and one of her mother’s friends: “‘And you have plenty of time to grow into your own intuitive talents,’ Neeve added. Her gaze seemed hungry.” Why hungry? I must read on! Of course, it’s important not to do this too often, and Stiefvater uses it sparingly.

Her dialogue also keeps the reader alert. Her characters often don’t respond directly to what’s been said, and even when they do it can create that little tension-producing gap. Here’s Blue talking with Gansey, the President boy, about her talent for enhancing other people’s psychic ability:

“Yes,” she said, “I guess I make things that need energy stronger. I’m like a walking battery.”
“You’re the table everyone wants at Starbucks,” Gansey mused as he began to walk again.
Blue blinked, “What?”
Over his shoulder, Gansey said, “Next to the wall plug.”

The one fault in the book is the ending. Like so many books these days, it just falls off after a climactic scene, as though the author got tired of writing, leaving many story questions unanswered. Of course, this is the first in a projected four-book series (three published so far), so perhaps the dangling threads are meant to make us read the next book. However, that seems like a cheap trick from such an accomplished author.

What makes you keep reading?

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