Note: No spoilers for this book, but some spoilers for previous books in the series.
This is a review of, or perhaps more accurately, a discussion of, The Raven King, the fourth and last in the immensely popular fantasy series “The Raven Cycle” by young adult author Maggie Stiefvater. This book is not a standalone by any means, so it is assumed the first three books are familiar to any reader of this review.
Before starting this book, I read recaps of the previous three books, and while excellent (written by Stiefvater herself), I missed the familiarity and flow of rereading the actual books. But I have little doubt that I will be returning to all of them in time.
Blue Sargent comes from a family of psychics. As Stiefvater describes what a psychic is in the first chapter:
“Psychic was not so much a personality type as a skill set. A belief system. A general agreement that time, like a story, was not a line; it was an ocean. If you couldn’t find the precise moment you were looking for, it was possible you hadn’t swum far enough. It was possible that you simply weren’t a good enough swimmer yet.”
This could also serve as a descriptor of sorts, “[d]epending on where you began the story,” for what happens in “The Raven Cycle.”
Blue is under a curse that holds “If you kiss your true love, he’ll die.” She now has a first love, Richard Gansey, but of course they haven’t kissed; Blue had to tell Gansey about the risk. To make matters worse and more confusing to her, she did see Gansey’s death in a vision the year before, in fact, right at the beginning of “The Raven Cycle.” This is before she even met Gansey, but she felt drawn to him immediately when she saw the soon-to-be-dead walk past her on The Corpse Road. She had gone with her aunt to watch for them, because Blue is an amplifier – not a psychic herself, but someone who adds power and energy to others.
In this fourth book, the group of friends who have become family – Noah, Adam, Ronan, Gansey and Blue, and newly joined by Henry, are working to overcome the seemingly forgone fate of Gansey.
This book also highlights the relationship not just between Blue and Gansey, but also between Ronan and Adam. Both entanglements are depicted in lovely passages that capture the glimmering moments of hesitancy, tenderness and passion common to first love. There is no one better, in my opinion, in capturing the mood and moment of young romance than Stiefvater:
“[Ronan’s] feelings for Adam were an oil spill; he’d let them overflow and now there wasn’t a damn place in the ocean that wouldn’t catch fire if he dropped a match.”
Gansey talking about why Henry’s toga party was wonderful:
“It was this: Gansey saying, ‘I like you an awful lot, Blue Sargent.’
It was this: Blue’s smile – crooked, wry, ridiculous, flustered. There was a lot of happiness tucked in the corner of that smile, and even though her face was several inches from Gansey, some of it still spilled out and got on him.”
And when Gansey and Blue are watching the magic made by Henry’s magical device, the RoboBee:
“As they watched it together, Gansey opened up his overcoat and tucked Blue inside it with him. This, too, was a weird and specific magic, the ease of it, the warmth of him around her, his heartbeat thumping against her back.”
Gansey, who is only 17, has started to realize that “He wanted the rest of his life.” . . . “He was a book, and he was holding his final pages, and he wanted to get to the end to find out how it went, and he didn’t want it to be over.”
He would never really say this to his friends, or ask them to help him, and yet they do. It has to do with, as Henry explains to Gansey, the concept of jeong. The way Henry explains it is:
“We are friends at once, we would instantly do what friends would do for each other. Not just pals. Friends. Blood brothers. You just feel it. We instead of you and me. That’s jeong.”
To Gansey, the concept felt right:
“It was how he felt about Ronan and Adam and Noah and Blue. With each of them, it had felt instantly right: relieving. Finally, he’d thought, he’d found them. We instead of you and me.”
[Incidentally, you can read a good article on the meaning of jeong here.]
Blue has thought this about all of them too:
“…there was something newly powerful about this assembled family . . . . They were all growing up and into each other like trees striving together for the sun.”
Trees – aptly, because trees are a recurring theme. Blue’s mother Maura met Artemus, Blue’s father, when he was “a random [man] from a mystical grove.” Artemus actually is a tree, or at least, he is one of the tir e e’lintes, beings who can appear as a man or a tree. He tells Blue:
“All of the tir e e’lintes are full of potential, always moving, always restless, always looking for possibilities to reach out and be somewhere else, be something else. . . . But more than anything, we love the stars.”
This also could describe Blue. When she asks the psychics what they see for her, her mother’s best friend Calla (for Calla Lilly) answers “Trees in your eyes. . . . Stars in your heart.”
Further, there is a central role played by a spiritual grove of trees, the dream-forest called Cabeswater. As Stiefvater explains in the book: “Cabeswater was not a forest. Cabeswater was a thing that happened to look like a forest right now.” It was “creepy, gorgeous, sentient, and magical,” and in this book, it comes under attack by the demon, The Unmaker, released at the end of Book Three:
“The memories caught in groves, the songs invented only in nighttime, the creeping euphoria that ebbed and flowed around one of the waterfalls. Everything that had been dreamt into this place it undreamt.
The dreamer it would unmake last.”
Artemus, Blue’s real father, tells her reluctantly that the only way to stop the demon is that “Someone must willingly die on the corpse road.”
For Gansey, there is no other choice. There has never been another choice. He, more than anyone, is capable of heroic virtue: “He was a king.”
Evaluation: Stiefvater once again has set music to words, in a transcendent epic about friendship, love, and the bonds of family, both original and constructed. Her facility with the language and rhythms of enchantment and affection bring this saga to an end in a fitting apotheosis.
I have only a few criticisms: the ending felt a bit rushed, and there were some loose plot threads never addressed. But this of course makes it possible that Stiefvater will return to the story at a later date. [She said she would not go back to “The Shiver Trilogy,” but then delighted readers with a fourth book I thought was one of her best: Sinner.]
Published by Scholastic Press, 2016