Hey guys! Bit of a switch up from my regular content with this post; I’ve decided to do a sort-of review/overview of a book series I finished recently – namely, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. Apparently it’s also National Book Lovers day, so in the words of Bob Ross, this is a happy little accident. This series started in 2012 with The Raven Boys (and was followed by The Dream Thieves, and Blue Lily, Lily Blue) and concluded with The Raven King in 2016. I’m a bit late to the party (pretty on brand for me anyway) as I tend to avoid YA novels that receive a lot of hype – I usually end up being disappointed nine times out of ten. But I finally caved and read the series – and I ended up really enjoying it. Though the pacing can be excruciating slow at times, and the plot usually takes a backseat in this character-driven story, I absolutely fell in love with the atmosphere, and most of its incredibly well-crafted characters. Which is why I was so utterly disappointed in this final installment, The Raven King, and how I felt it to be a thoroughly unsatisfactory conclusion to this otherwise meticulously written series.
I’m calling this a review, but realistically this is a rant – I just need to vent my irritation into the void of the internet. I’m going to be going over the major points that I felt were handled poorly and led to my hatred of this novel… not to be melodramatic or anything. It’s been a couple months since I’ve read the first two books, so I might also make some mistakes or be remembering sections incorrectly – feel free to hit me with the #actually in the comments if I say anything untrue. There’s also definitely going to be (at least one) unpopular opinion ahead, so as always, share your thoughts on any of my points. Also, one final disclaimer: I am going to be discussing some political/religious topics, and have tried to do so as respectfully and plainly as possible. My views on these topics are solely related to how they are presented in this novel, and I apologize if any of my wording comes across as cavalier or reductive. With that said, spoilers for the whole series from this point on. And lots of swearing. This post is waay too long as usual, so grab a snack and a cup of tea or something.
Ronan vs. Religion
Ronan’s rocky relationship with his religious beliefs has always been presented as a point of contention in these novels; it’s something that he seems to think about a lot, and it constitutes the majority of the common ground between him and the rest of his family (Declan specifically). This concept is almost completely absent in The Raven King – I especially hate the fact that Ronan’s religion is completely ignored when it comes to his sexuality. In this final novel Ronan and Adam are sort-of almost dating, and there is never a conversation had, or thought spared for how Ronan feels this intersects with his religious beliefs. Especially when so much attention is paid to this issue in earlier novels, how Ronan struggles with self-loathing and fear for his ‘soul,’ the fact that this is never addressed feels like a massive cop out on the part of the author. Take this interaction from book two, The Dream Thieves, for instance:
[Ronan] “I’m just telling you I’m not going. Maybe it’s wrong, maybe it’s not. My soul’s in enough peril as it is.”
“Do you think we’re in league with the Devil, Ronan?” Blue asked. “They’re evil soothsayers?”
The Dream Thieves, pg. 162
It’s heavily implied that Ronan believes that Blue’s family, all psychics of some kind, exist in fundamental opposition to his religious beliefs, and he refuses to speak with them initially. He seems to relax this policy as the series continues, but the fact that it was such a point of conflict between these two characters, along with Ronan’s belief in the Devil, Heaven, and Hell, it’s conspicuous that there is absolutely zero discussion from his part on how he feels like this impacts his own perception of his sexuality. Religion and sexuality are two tricky concepts that are absolutely interconnected, and the fact that Stiefvater skirts the issue completely feels cheap, like she wanted the representation without having to touch any of the hardships that queer people typically experience. She didn’t even have to take a hard stance, or make any sweeping political statements, but it did need to be addressed. You don’t get to callously bring up these controversial topics and then sidestep around the pitfalls like they don’t exist. It came across as incredibly disingenuous. I also don’t give a raven’s ass if she was saving this kind of discussion for the next Ronan-centric series, Call Down the Hawk – she introduced these aspects of his identity in this series, and it should have been addressed here as well.
Ronan and Adam
Unpopular opinion, inbound! I hate that these two characters ended up together. Hear me out though: in the beginning of the series, the author wasted initial time on the romance between Adam and Blue, which we as an audience know isn’t going anywhere, because we know Blue will end up with Gansey. This makes Blue look like a giant asshole, which she is, and makes Adam feel like an outsider in the group. Their ‘breakup’ obviously hurts him a lot and causes some tension between the friends. This lead me to feel like Ronan and Adam’s relationship was completely forced, as a sort of consolation prize for Adam being dicked over by Blue. He still gets his ‘happy ending’ and Blue and Gansey can swan off into the sunset without anyone feeling guilty about Adam, because hey, he has Ronan now right? The typical BS Young Adult trope of all the MC’s being paired off in relationships by the time the series comes to a close rears its ugly head, and it’s so tired and I’m over it.
What’s more, while Stiefvater had spent almost three books slowly hinting at Ronan’s sexuality, Adam is never suggested to be anything other than straight, and this rapid reveal feels like pandering to her teen fangirls. This criticism is maybe unfair, as I’m sure many people in the queer community struggle to accept themselves, and maybe don’t embrace their sexuality until later in their lives, but from a writing standpoint, Adam’s ‘feelings’ for Ronan are introduced too abruptly. These two characters had literally zero chemistry, and Ronan’s small displays of affection towards Adam aren’t enough to make their relationship something that you want to root for. Ronan’s feelings towards Adam are made extremely clear (and are endearing as hell, especially from this character), whereas Adam just seems apathetic towards Ronan, and never really expresses any kind of passion one way or the other about the relationship. We get thoughts like this from Ronan:
Adam smiled cheerily. Ronan would start wars and burn cities for that true smile, elastic and amiable.
The Raven King, pg. 219
While the most we get from Adam is essentially “don’t worry, I won’t break his heart.” My boy Ronan deserved way better is what I’m saying. I like both of these characters individually (Ronan easily being my favourite in the series) but not together. They should have both been single, but this is YA, so god forbid. In the words of Lindsay Ellis, thanks, I hate it.
Poor Henry Cheng – this character never stood a chance. There’s a reason authors do not introduce new protagonists in the final novel of a series. There simply is not enough time to flesh out their personality, nor is there enough time for them to feel truly integrated into the established main group. It means that a) there is less time spent focused on characters we’ve loved since book one, and b) we don’t have enough room to truly get to know him and appreciate any kind of development he has (himself, or with the other characters). He’s just insta-friends with Gansey (and Blue, to an extent) and never has anything to do with Ronan or Adam. His presence at the climax of the novel (and moments like finding Glendower and Gansey’s death) that have been building for the entirety of the series feels so off. He just seemed so painfully out of place. He serves as a plot device and nothing more – it’s like the author knew she needed to get Gansey and co. from point A to B, and instead of relying on an actual plot, she simply introduces this character who happens to possess abilities extremely convenient for the narrative. His inclusion was to serve a story purpose and nothing more, and this is incredibly unfortunate because he isn’t a bad character. There are also a couple scenes where it’s implied that the MC’s are making fun of Henry’s ethnicity (i.e. being racist) and this seriously cheapens some genuinely likeable characters. Don’t do them like that. These comments are also played off as ‘comedic’ which is just… just yikes.
Blue is the Worst™
I’m not going to spend too much time on this point – Blue has always been, and continues to be, the worst character in this series. Apparently being offended at literally everything, being the worst example of a ‘feminist’ that I have ever read, making your own quirky clothes, being a judgemental asshole (re: being mad her cousin Orla for wearing a bikini to the lake) and eating yogurt a lot constitute having a personality. A bunch of pointless story beats related to her are brought up and then quickly forgotten. She’s suspended from school for some reason that we never actually get to know (though this leads to a hilarious interaction with Ronan) and her tree heritage is introduced and then never expanded on or relevant at all. I felt that her story wrap-up was pretty fitting overall. Ronan gifts her a Camaro from one of his dreams – this Camaro is identical to Gansey’s except it’s empty, no engine, no nothing. Given that Blue has zero personality, it feels accurate that she gets an exact copy of Gansey’s treasure, except it has no guts, and nothing going on underneath the hood. I’m sincerely glad to never have to read about this character ever again – I hope she isn’t included extensively in future novels.
Forgotten Plot Threads
Jesus H Christ, I genuinely think that this book might have been based on the first draft and then never re-read or edited. This author introduces so many plot threads that are either ignored or left completely unresolved by the time the novel ends. Noah gets the worst non-ending, and for a character that has been present in each title, this feels so unfair. He literally just vanishes with no fanfare or explanation. There is a huge plot point where it’s implied that Gansey has traded his (and Ronan’s) home at Monmouth Manufacturing for a diploma for Ronan, despite the latter’s disinterest in his studies. He’s bribed the school’s headmaster with this property so his friend can graduate. However, this never amounts to anything. It’s never mentioned at the end of the novel – there is no discussion, and it’s not even clear if Ronan has graduated or gotten his fake diploma or anything. Knowing this character, if he had understood what Gansey did, there would have been hell to pay. Ronan would have shoved his boot so far up Gansey’s ass that he would have had to dream up some kind of magical instrument to be able to extract it again. The fact that this plot point is left to die is just so odd and baffling I’m genuinely wondering if I missed something while I was reading.
Blue’s weird tree-family lineage (family tree? Haha?) is presented as this huge revelation but ends up being completely irrelevant. Her not-quite-human identity never plays a part in the story. Every single antagonist in this title is a complete waste of space – Piper dies after doing literally nothing the entire book, Laumonier (x3) only appears in the same space as our merry band of heroes in one scene, and then proceeds to do – you guessed it – nothing for the rest of the novel. Greenmantle is also killed off (which is fine because he was a drastically underwhelming antagonist anyway) in the first quarter of the book. The whole ‘magical artifact auction’ is done in about 3 pages and ends up being a non-event. Declan and Matthew fleeing is pointless, and they are never brought up again. The death of Ronan’s mother is quickly forgotten. No attention is paid to the 300 Fox Way ladies, or Mr. Gray. The whole conclusion is just so wildly unsatisfying that it’s incredible.
The Glendower Fiasco
The entirety of The Raven Cycle series was based around this group of friends finding this mysterious (possibly still living) Welsh king. After three books have been about them finding the tomb of this mythical king, they do find him – and he’s dead. He’s nothing – he’s dust. There are a half dozen metaphorical reasons that Stiefvater chose to do this I can think of off the top of my head, and I’m not going to bother listing them all, but from a purely narrative standpoint, this is utter garbage. It ends up feeling like one of those “the real Glendower was the friends we made along the way” scenarios but it essentially means that the entire plot of the series ends up being for naught. We get 600 year old, nonsensical Gwenallian, but no Glendower. Even having a goddamn note that he scrawled on his tomb, a message for these kids to find, would have been better than what they got. Also, the place they find him almost makes it feel like he’s not really there because it makes no sense? It seemed like the author got so sidetracked with other BS going on in the novel that she didn’t know how to wrap up the Glendower plot line so she just… didn’t. This is so beyond the realm of disappointing I don’t even know how to articulate it. The gang definitely didn’t need the kingly favour(s), but having some sort of meeting with this king, even with his ghost, was something that the narrative 100% needed. Just another disappointment feather in the shitcap that was The Raven King.
I knew Gansey wasn’t going to die. It’s not hard to predict. He’s the leader of the group, Blue’s true love, and even though it’s constantly harped on from book one, you know that it’s just not going to happen. I’m not saying Stiefvater should have actually followed through and killed him (especially after the non-event that was Glendower) as that would have made the series feel completely pointless, but his death and subsequent revival should have been more, well, magical? When Henry says to the others “You’re his magicians, do something” I genuinely thought that Adam, Ronan, and Blue were going to do something amazing to bring him back. Like maybe as Gansey’s ‘soul’ travelled along the ley line, while the demon died, Blue’s random tree lineage would somehow allow her to hold his soul in a Cabeswater tree, while Ronan maybe dreamed him a healed physical form, with help from Adam channeling the magic of the ley line. Literally something. Anything. Instead there is just this weird, vague description of Cabeswater re-creating Gansey somehow. It’s also implied that Gansey isn’t quite going to be the same, that he’ll be changed somehow – but this is never addressed again, shown clearly, or confirmed. It was just another bullshit cop out for sparing this character and dodging an actual plot point that she had built up to for four novels. It also leaves Blue’s ‘curse’ somewhat unexplained (that her kiss will kill her true love) but honestly, who gives a shit I guess.
Final point. Whew, we’re almost there. I feel like the author was trying to make these grand, metaphoric type parallels regarding her theme of cyclical time (with Noah being the one who initially spoke to Gansey, etc.) in this novel, and just utterly failed to communicate it clearly. She tried to create this matryoshka-like, layered narrative, where you almost have stories within stories, and you’re drawing all these parallels between Glendower and his Magicians, and Gansey and his crew. Because Ronan gave form to Cabeswater, Adam functions as its eyes and hands, Gansey is Cabeswater’s voice in a sense, and Blue is… something? A mirror? Whatever, she isn’t important and her role is always vaguely explained. It feels like these characters were always connected on this really deep level, like they all share pieces of each other, but these threads are never really wrapped up properly. I truly felt like Gansey’s death should have had something more to do with all these connections that the author built up and then completely ignored. This idea of circular time and drawing similarities between the characters was actually handled quite well in the previous three books, which is why it feels like such a let down here at the finish line.
By the time I finished this novel, I was left feeling like the author didn’t have a clear idea of how or where she wanted The Raven Cycle to end. Maybe she was under a time crunch, or never intended the series to be four books, or maybe even had the beginning and middle plotted out, but neglected the ending until she was actually there. Regardless, this finale felt like it tarnished an otherwise very well-written series, and it was such a let down. There were so many cliches, forgotten plot points, and character developments that felt unearned. I wish Stiefvater had somehow just ended this in the third book and that this one had never existed. I’m still looking forward to reading Call Down the Hawk, especially since it’s Ronan, but I sincerely hope it’s better planned and more tightly plotted than The Raven Cycle.