The Raven Cycle, by Maggie Stiefvater: A Book Review (of the whole series)
I've decided that individual books in a larger series are the hardest to write book reviews of, because so much of what you want to write about, say, book three would give away what happened in book one, let alone avoiding giving any spoilers about book three.
I wrote a tiny bit about The Dream Thieves, the second book in Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle, but bumped up against the same problem. I didn't even mention reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue. But this summer (actually...I think it was in May!) The Raven King, which is the fourth—and final—book in the series, was released, and I gobbled it up in about three days. And now I'm free to write about the series as a whole, instead of individual books, so as not to give any spoilers.
Blue Sargent grew up in the small town of Henrietta, Virginia, with her mom and a bunch of aunts, all of whom are clairvoyant. Blue isn't—but she is an amplifier, a person who makes others' clairvoyant skills larger. She's lived her life with a prophecy, that she would kill her true love by kissing him, so she sort of avoids boys altogether. But she especially avoids the boys who attend Aglionby, the private school in Henrietta, because they're all rich, pretentious jerks.
On St. Marks Eve, Blue goes with her aunt Neeve to a church that is on the ley line—lines of psychic power that weave throughout the Virginia landscape. On that night, Neeve is able to see the future ghosts of the people in their community who will die in the upcoming year. Blue, who's never seen any of the ghosts, goes to make the process easier for Neeve, but this year is different: she sees the ghost of a boy in an Aglionby sweater. Neeve tells her she can see him because he is either her true love or a person she will kill.
Richard Gansey III shows up at Blue's house one day soon after, for a psychic reading, and Blue recognizes him; he's the boy from the church whose ghost she saw. Gansey is on his own sort of quest: he is obsessed with finding the grave of Owen Glendower, a king from Wales who, according to legend, came to America centuries ago to avoid persecution in his own country. The person who finds Glendower's grave, the legend goes, will be granted one wish, and Gansey is determined to find it.
The story builds from those two lines: Blue's immersion in the supernatural and Gansey's quest; her prejudice against the Aglionby boys (whose mascot is the raven) and the friendship that slowly starts to form between Blue, Gansey, and Gansey's friends Noah, Adam, and Ronan. There is a magical forest and adventures in caves, people with strange abilities and people with weaknesses that could get them killed, the mysterious and menacing Grey Man and the possibility of discovering Blue's enigmatic father. There is a maleficent demon that looks like an enormous wasp and a character who is (deathly) afraid of the Vespidae family.
I thoroughly enjoyed this series.
It wasn't perfect and the ending had some issues, but as a whole I would recommend it. I loved it for the original base of the story—a hunt for an ancient Welsh king with magical powers, but in contemporary Virginia? That is new, which is something I watch out for in fantasy series. (I don't like to relive the same fantasy tropes over and over.) I like it for the overcoming of prejudice on all sides. I loved the characters, Blue's spunky personality, her annoyance and anger with the wealthy Raven boys, her connection to nature; Gansey's guarded self and his orange Camaro; the moms and aunts with their psychic abilities. I loved the structure of the books, too. This isn't just Blue's story, so the perspective changes; sometimes we are seeing things from Blue's point of view, sometimes Gansey's, sometimes Ronan's, sometimes other characters. Stiefvater does this in a way that makes it feel seamless and organic to the story. And, to make it even better, the writing is just lovely. There is a sort of snarky undertone to the entire undertaking, handled with an elegant flourish. For example, here's my favorite bit from the last book, The Raven King, which has almost nothing to do with the story but resonated with me anyway:
It wasn't that Henry was less of himself in English. He was less of himself out loud. His native language was thought.(This is exactly me, except not in the sense of English itself as a language, but in the contrast between speaking and writing. My native language is writing.)
The Raven Cycle is, in my mind, perfect summer reading: an intriguing plot, strong characters, beautiful writing, but nothing that takes itself too seriously. Plus, it is entirely finished, so you won't have to wait until the books are written to discover whether or not Gansey et al find Glendower, and if Blue's prophecy will actually come true, and how it all works out (or doesn't). It sort of broke my heart and sort of mended it, and if you read it, I hope you'll tell me what you think, so we could talk freely without fear of spoilers.