Apr 27, 2016

This post contains spoilers for The Raven King

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
…or, if not exactly explicit spoilers, at least enough giveaways that you’d be able to put two and two together. It only seems fair, then, to give my friends who are still waiting for or reading the final book in The Raven Cycle the option to avert their eyes.

In the photo above I’m holding my copy The Raven King in my garden and pretending it’s spring. Don’t let the sunshine fool you — it snowed yesterday, and today it’s colder than it was for most of January. All of this has me craving summer and wide open spaces and possibility. I can’t quite decide whether that means this book came at the right time for me, or just at a time likely to make it too much for my poor heart.

I was lucky: one of my local bookshops had The Raven King out early, and so I was able to buy it on Sunday and consume it over two evenings of ravenous reading, with only work and sleep getting in the way of me reading it all in one go. This was my most anticipated final book in a series since Monsters of Men oh so many years ago — and much like back then, the experience has been enhanced by the fact that I got to share it with a group of blogging friends. I feel bereft now that it’s over, but most of all what I feel is a vague and ineffable sense of longing — the kind I’ve learned to enjoy over the years, but which can nevertheless feel like a stab to the heart.

The day before The Raven King was published, Maggie Stiefvater wrote the following on her tumblr:
At the end of the Raven Cycle, I want readers… to want.

I don’t want them to be able to say what it is they want, though — I want it to be a bigger thing than words. I hope they get to the end and don’t know what to do for the rest of the day. I hope they feel unsettled and needing of something more. I want messages that say, “Stiefvater, please, I just want… ” and then silence. They don’t know what they want. They just want.
As Stiefvater herself acknowledges, there isn’t always necessarily much of an overlap between what a creator hopes others will take away from their work and the meaning people find in it — and that’s perfectly fine. It’s part of the very human process of responding to art. Having said that, in this case she was right on the money. The sense of longing these books convey has always been one of my favourite things about them, even if sometimes it hurts. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that the times when I’m able to enjoy this feeling are the times when I manage to combine it with a sense of possibility, rather than with impatience at the confines of my own life.

I have to confess that the first time I heard about The Raven Boys, I wondered whether this series was for me. This was mostly because of the tagline “If you kiss your true love, he will die”, and the expectations it set about how this story was going to go. But of course, those are the exact expectations The Raven Cycle went on to very deliberately explode. Looking back now, I feel nothing but awe at how Stiefvater uses a prophecy as a point of departure to tell a story that’s actually about breaking free of a sense of inevitability and doom, and instead embracing the possibilities of your life.

Throughout the series, we learn about how the main characters fear that their paths have already been set. Adam fears that he’ll become his father; Ronan that he’ll drown in grief and sorrow and self-destruction; Blue that Henrietta will contain her whole life; Gansey that he’ll lose himself to being a Gansey, and all that it implies (that, or that he will die). This articulation lacks a certain finesse, but if you’re reading this, you probably know what I mean: they’re all terrified that there are no more surprises for them, no more wide open spaces and unfathomable tomorrows, and they all readily embrace the possibilities that their quest for Glendower and Cabeswater and their relationships with one another represent. Escaping the fixed futures they fear isn’t easy, but it is possible; to do so, they need hope and they need each other.

As it turns out, possibilities don’t always come in the shape you expect, but that doesn’t mean the world isn’t rife with them. Something more doesn’t necessarily have to be a long-dead Welsh king. Something more can be anything. This is why I found the epilogue’s “The year stretched out in front of them, magical and enormous and entirely unwritten” one of the most moving lines in this series. The best moments of my life were almost invariable ones when I felt my chest expand with this feeling — when the world felt huge and unlimited and surprising.

Likewise for “They were all growing up and into each other like trees striving together for the sun”: my other favourite thing about The Raven Cycle is the fact that although it includes and celebrates romantic love, the ties at its heart go beyond the confines of couplehood. This is a story about found families, and the intricacies of human intimacy in any form, and surviving abuse and slowly regaining the ability to trust. No wonder it hit me right in the heart.

This, too, is linked to the sense of openness and possibility I talked about before, because love and human closeness are very much a part of it. Even when you think you’re done, there could be new people to love anywhere you go. There’s no end in sight to the terrifying joy of mutual discovery, even when it seems outside the limits of what’s possible for your life. This is why I loved Henry Cheng, and why I was overjoyed to see him befriend Blue and Gansey at the end of their quest. Just when they thought the end was in sight, a new beginning. Just when they felt done, the jolt of being known, and a new sense of hope in each other.

What a book. What a series. Now what do I do with myself?

14 comments:

  1. YES to your thing about finding new beginnings just when the series is coming to an end. That ending was perfect. I loved it that Ronan is thinking about the Camaro wheel at the end and recognizing that it's a sign that there are more ley line adventures to come. AND I love it that Henry and Gansey and Blue are all going to Venezuela. Why not! (Does this mean Blue lets Henry and Gansey pay her way? Do you think?)

    (Ronan should still find a thing for Gansey's bee allergy though. Like, if he's going to be gallivanting off to foreign climes. That still seems important.)

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    1. I'm not sure how Blue made it work, but I bet whatever happened, they had long and detailed conversations about how it made everyone feel and what it implies and the potential power dynamics behind it and everyone tried their very best to understand the other's POV. Have I mentioned I love them all? :P

      (And YES, YES HE SHOULD. I bet he did.)

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  2. Oh, Ana, I haven't even gotten the book yet, and I love this post. I especially like this part:
    "Even when you think you’re done, there could be new people to love anywhere you go. There’s no end in sight to the terrifying joy of mutual discovery, even when it seems outside the limits of what’s possible for your life."

    I agree that there is so much terror and self-consciousness in putting yourself out there and making yourself vulnerable (however slightly) to another person, especially someone that you do not know well. I am not sure why, because they are two wildly different books and authors, but you saying that made me think of Aziz Ansari's Modern Love, and how he says that we're all just struggling through the same miserable dating world and we should at least be kind to the other people in it. And give other people a chance to wow us and get to know us instead of always thinking about what else we could be doing.

    I, too, am longing for warmth and sunshine and greenery. It's been a long haul through March and April here, too, and the start of May doesn't look to be much better. Here's hoping that we are all able to read outside in gardens soon.

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    1. First of all, this comment and your tweet made me happy. Thank you ♥

      I want to read Ansari's book (which I'd been meaning to do anyway). I can see how it's different but also kind of not - just this idea that whatever the nature of the relationship you're entering, we need to be careful and patient with each other.

      It feels like summer will never come at the moment, but it will, it will. Only a few months now until we get to hang out :D

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  3. I haven't read it yet so I averted my eyes, but I really hope it's not insanely depressing now :/

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    1. La la la not saying anything for now :P

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  4. omg this review made me teary! I finished today (I did all the books via audio as it's really the only way I have time to read now, but I will buy the set because it's worth having.) You picked out some of my favorite lines as well and I loved the ending. Thanks to all you guys for evangelizing these books so I finally read them when I had a chance!

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    1. I love the bit you posted on tumblr too. Ahhhh my heart.

      And you're most welcome! I'm so glad you read them and loved them just as much as the rest of us do ♥

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  5. I was able to read the book on the weekend, which means I'm finally able to come here and read your review. And I want to say, yes, exactly, I agree entirely. The Raven Cycle is ultimately such a kind and hopeful series - kind to its characters and their anxious, unspoken hopes, and kind to its readers, who read it for consolation and dare to hope accordingly.

    In other words, you have said everything I wanted to say about this luminous, strange, and welcoming series of books, and I'm so glad that this story spoke to you as well.

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    1. Kind to its characters is exactly right. As I said on Twitter, I'm so glad you loved it as much as I did, and I really look forward to reading your thoughts if you decide to write about the series!

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  6. The possibility seems to me like it was all for the young people. Maura and what's left of her found family are left weeping in the bathtub with her lover inside a tree in her yard and her kid going far, far away.

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    1. Not necessarily, I don't think. I don't want to dismiss the sense of loss of watching your child leave, which is of course outside my realm of experience, but I was left feeling that Maura has as much of a chance of rebuilding her life as Blue. I don't think there was much left between her and Artemus regardless of the tree. Mr Grey's departure was to me more painful, but the possibility that they'll cross paths again is left open, and I saw hope in the fact that Maura formed a meaningful connection with him in the midst of all that was happening. Going beyond romance, Persephone's death was a heavy blow, but to Blue as well as to Maura. Of course, I'll be the first to admit that my perspective is shaped by the fact that it's still easier for me to put myself in the shoes of children than of parents in stories, but I didn't think that when we last saw Maura she was beyond the possibility of discovery and joy.

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  7. I saved everyone's Raven Cycle posts until I'd finished the book, then had this total brain fart where I didn't actually go and read them. Maybe my subconscious was trying to draw the experience out more, somehow?

    Maybe it was my conscious mind, instead. I want to keep these books with me always, as I do with all my favourites, and reading everyone's responses at regular intervals instead of all at once gives me an excuse to relive the experience and share it with others, all at once.

    I'm glad people like you and Jenny exist to articulate the maelstrom of emotions I haven't quite managed to get out of my own head and onto the screen. Thank you for writing such lovely things here, and for gushing about the series with me. <3

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    1. Thank you for the exact same, friend! Sharing these books with you and Jenny and all our friends has been such a pleasure, and it has really enhanced the experience for me. <3

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.