Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven King

With The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater brings The Raven Cycle to a triumphant close. While imperfect, the concluding volume is magnificent. It completes the story set out to be told in The Raven Boys, twisting and turning and ultimately reaching a satisfying conclusion. Maybe more importantly, it signals that while the quest for Glendower and the matter of Gansey's impending death have been resolved, there is still so much questing and living left for these characters.

Along with Gansey, Blue, Adam, Ronan, and Noah, the reader has sought Glendower throughout the Virginian countryside. We've witnessed terrors and wonders. Victories and defeats. That might be my favourite part: Knowing that we've participated in a moment of these fictional lives; they existed before the first line of The Raven Boys and they'll continue on after the final line of The Raven King.

The Raven Cycle is a passionate, sprawling narrative. It's messy and tangled around its characters, who are in turn messy and tangled around each other. Stiefvater has written one of the best examples of complex friendships, and the inescapable way that people are drawn into each other's lives. The quest for Glendower is the unifying purpose of the group, but it's not what the books are about. Not only is this honest, but it's valuable. Groups come together then shift, evolve, and change in life, and it is refreshing to see them do so in fiction not because of conflict or drama, but because that's how it is. Within this final volume, there is definitely a marked shift of the larger group into smaller ones.

The Raven King is also perhaps the strongest of the series when it comes to the delicate balance of light and dark, illustrating how both exist in all the characters and in life. It's always seemed to me that the first book was about Adam, the second about Ronan, and the third about Blue. The Raven King is Gansey's book—fraught with anxiety and horrors, but so eager to be wondrous and filled with hope. It's a valiant book; one that prizes honesty, compassion, and competence. Things go well in this series because people ask for help, they accept when it's offered, and doing so works magic. While the narrative doesn't pretend that's effortless or without compromise, it constantly seeks and finds a balance.

It is impossible not to discuss Henry Cheng, who is not only vital to The Raven King but who may be the character whom I love the most. I was not expecting that. Henry crashed into Blue Lily, Lily Blue and read like he was mainly a foil for Gansey. That continues somewhat in The Raven King, because mirrors/mirroring/balance are very important to the overreaching narrative, but Henry steps up and becomes his own character. A joyfully terrified new member of the group who can offer Gansey a view of what he could be, and in turn, grows along with him. As a result, I loved every scene with Henry in it. Also, I want to live at Litchfield House, because they throw the best parties.

I would've liked to see Henry introduced much sooner—say book one or two—because it would have made him feel more organically included. That said, I've experienced the kind of friendship that Henry and Gansey have: A sudden and situational one that grows into something bigger and better. Sometimes you just click with someone and neither of you are really certain why. It's not to say that won't take work to continue to be a functioning friendship, but it's also incorrect to believe it never happens.

If you've never had someone appear in your life and offer remarkable kindness when you needed it, then I wish that for you. Because it's a rather splendid magic to have the privilege of experiencing. It's also a rather splendid kind of magic to work for someone else.

But in the interest of honesty, maybe why I like Henry the most is because I needed to hear what he had to say. When I read The Raven King, I needed the reminder that "If you can't be unafraid—then be afraid and happy."

Having anxiety is like living with a nightmare tree in your head. Anxiety constantly wants to tell you everything will break, and no one wants you around, and you will die alone in a hole. (For some of us, it's very specific about the hole and which animals will gnaw on our forgotten bones.) If you let it, it can be there 24/7 to provide a plethora of fears.

"Safe as life" is a loaded statement when you have anxiety. But we don't have to live like that—limited by fear—and it is the constant choice of people in The Raven King not to. This book rewards everyone who chooses to live. This book celebrates the choice to live and grow and go on adventures—whatever one decides qualifies for one as an adventure. Because this book understands living and growing look different to different people. I am so proud of all these fictional people—how they've grown and the places they earned for themselves.

Maybe that's my point. The Raven King is not magnificent because it is perfect, and expertly crafted, and never misses a narrative beat. (That has never been what I've asked The Raven Cycle to be. Because it's not. Each book has pacing issues. Blue Lily, Lily Blue is as close to structurally perfect as they get.) The Raven King falters; it wanders off down dead ends, and it forgets about one of its antagonists for most of the book, and it doesn't tie everything up neatly. But. But. It is magnificent, because I recognize all of its flaws and none of them matter to me as a reader.

Would I like to finally get the answer about the fucking hubcap? YES. I WOULD. But I understand it turned out not to be essential to this story. I really do enjoy knowing there are stories left to tell, and I'll be all right even if they never get told. That's not the expectation or experience of every reader, but it's mine and I'm cool with it.

In the end, The Raven King is about growing bigger, growing out and into the world. It is about being joyfully terrified. About being regular-kind terrified, too, but doing the difficult or just difficult-for-you thing anyway. And everyone who does that, does well. If one wanted to make oneself a king, then that's a way one could go about doing so. It's also a good way to live. Out there in the world. Safe as life.

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