Maggie Stiefvater will be my downfall. It is books like these that make me remember why I gravitate towards high fantasy; urban fantasy, when done well, can utterly destroy the heart. I like my heart. To me, urban fantasy is done at its best when infused with a touch of whimsy, but that whimsy makes it hard to remember that magic does not really exist in the world. While you’re in her world–and you’re in it even in those times of the day when you’re not reading–Cabeswater is real, dreamers are real. Even sketchy hit men employed by secretive sellers of magical artifacts are real.
At least, until the books have no more left to give, at which point they throw you unceremoniously back into the real world, where there is no dead Welsh kings to chase after, no magical things to sacrifice lives for, no curses, no Gansey or Blue or Ronan or Adam, things and people that felt so tangible and real, as if I could just get in my own car and help them find a ley line while adventure unfolds. Maybe the whole world wouldn’t be at stake, but the characters’, and, by extension, my, whole world was at stake.
Now. Time to get into some details. But first: this series review will be spoiler-free. If you’ve read the series and want to go into spoilery stuff in the comments, awesome, I’d love to discuss specifics with you, but please use a spoiler warning.
Allow me to start with one of Stiefvater’s many talents. The writing was utterly breath-taking. It’s also accessible. The deft ways she handled her prose makes each of the four books quick reads. Part of that can also be tied to pacing, which I shall get to in a bit, but this series can only pack its punch because every word drips with the passion and faith that pairs naturally with its PoV characters.
The narrative is told by the four main characters, with some additional PoV characters as needed. Admittedly, none of the PoV characters have a distinct narrative voice, but the narrative style of the whole work is distinct on its own, and just because it is not readily apparent who is narrating a particular chapter does not mean the characters themselves feel lacking. Far from it. (See below: Character Arcs.)
It is enough for me to say that the way Stiefvater writes will grip your attention and it will not let go. Except for a few instances, the choice of which character is narrating any given scene feels natural, adding to the overall tension as individual and group stakes are raised.
If Stiefvater excels at prose in this series, she is god-tier with her characters. They don’t just jump off the page; they feel as if they’ve been off of it all along, and you just hadn’t noticed. Having finished the series, I understand now why so many readers love it so strongly. You will think that the series is about Glendower and Cabeswater. It’s not. It’s about Ronan and Gansey and Adam and Blue. I have read very few fantasy narratives that are able to pull off friendships so well.
Where the Raven Cycle excels, truly, is in understanding its characters’ weaknesses. To the outside eye, the four main characters have nothing in common. They should not be friends. Gansey is always saying the wrong thing, Ronan is self-destructive, Adam is a perfectionist trying to escape his demons, and Blue lives in a house of psychics.
Yet Gansey’s passion for Glendower is infectious. The affect of the ley line on the Henrietta four, and even on their adversaries, ultimately ties them all together irreversably, beautifully, and intensely.
There’s never a dull moment in the series. Honestly, it took a lot of self-control not to sit down somewhere and devour the books in a single sitting. Actually, sometimes I didn’t have enough self-control and read half a book at once regardless. The quiet moments are well-coordinated with the high-stakes ones so that the down-time felt earned.
What’s interesting, too, is that although their are horrific elements to the series from the beginning, I never felt like this was a horrific paranormal story until the characters really started marching towards the big conflict. The Raven King (#4) was especially so. Not necessarily in a “this will make it impossible for me to fall asleep” type way (and I’m a chicken when it comes to horror), but in a “I guess I understand why some people are avid King fans now” kind of way.
There are a few events that felt a little unnecessary or that perhaps could have been integrated a little better. Additionally, one of the few places Stiefvater stumbled in terms of PoV choice was in the last few chapters, making it incredibly difficult for the reader to follow what was going on, and, by extension, for the reader to stay invested in those high-stake scenes.
As an urban fantasy series, the only setting elements that needed to be unearthed were those relating to the magic system. True, some “real world” information had to be included, like the class divide between most of the Aglionby boys and the poorer side of town, but the biggest setting element involves the psychics, Cabeswater, and the ley line.
What’s beautiful about how the characters interact with these magical elements is the way in which they’re introduced to them. One was born with the ability to directly interact with magic; another has seemingly useless magic. One gets tied to it by dealing with an entity that no one fully understands. One could have walked away in theory, though in reality, walking away never would have been an option.
Despite dealing with the consequences of their actions, the ending did not necessarily feel like they were just cleaning up the mess they created. Instead, as I said above, not all of the characters can just untangle themselves from the conflict that presents itself, and the so-called “Gangsey” is a package deal. The magic of the story just makes the friendship side of it all more high-stakes.
Conclusion: Should You Read It?
In some ways, the ending is a little disappointing. To some readers, it may not feel satisfying. At least, not completely. But, ultimately, that is because of some questionable magic and PoV choices, and as I said, the series was never about the magic. It was never about Glendower. It was instead about four teens being teens, being friends, being human. That’s not to say the ending is trash; it’s just acknowledging that the story only really felt satisfying for me because the mildly disappointing (keyword: mildly) ending had to be propped up by the stellar character work for the resolution to have such a stunning impact.
To put it in less confusing terms: yes, you should read it. Especially if you like character-driven stories, books written with passion, and settings that just might convince you there really is magic in the world. I’m honestly angry with myself for having put off reading the series for so long. I truly do believe The Raven Cycle really is that good.