Friday, December 21, 2012

The Raven Boys

"You're looking for a for the devil. When there's a god, there's always a legion of devils."
      For those wanting to better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review in a series of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a Young Adult audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as to analyze how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview. There will be spoilers.
Blue, her mother Marua, and her aunt Neeve  have a strong affinity for the supernatural, an awareness of the darker forces lurking behind the veil, and a pretty keen desire to explore realms best left hidden. As part of her magical heritage, Blue is under something of a curse: if she ever kisses her true love, he will die.
Gansey, Ronan, Declan and Adam are the Raven boys, students attending an exclusive prep academy during they day while following legend and magic at night. They are dedicated to finding the ley lines, ancient lines of power strapped into the world. The word is that the ancient Celtic heroes such as Llewellyn and Glendower aren't really dead at all. They are impatiently waiting, preserved in the magic of the lines until someone frees them through the power of reciprocity and sacrifice.
This is good news to the one Raven boy who actually is dead already (though nobody else knows). And now that Blue is falling for another one of them, finding the lines really is a matter of life and death.
Welcome to Maggie Steifvater's The Raven Boys.

On Magic
This is a world in which magic simmers beneath every surface. They see the dead; they are fortunetellers and seers; they have tapped into something real. Blue’s family members claim not to be witches, but Neeve certainly is. When the book opens, Neeve and Blue are visiting a graveyard on a particularly potent night in order to see the dead.
This is not portrayed as a positive or negative thing. "The way Gansey saw it was this: if you had a special knack for finding things, it meant you owed the world to look." And look they do.

On Blue and the Men in her Life
Blue grows up not knowing who her father is. "She liked to imagine him stealing a glimpse of her over the backyard fence, proudly watching his strange daughter daydream under the beech tree. Blue was awfully fond of her father, considering she'd never met him."
While the book does not dwell on her fatherlessness, what Ms. Steifvater writes is poignant. The simple paragraph above captures a world of loneliness not so far removed from ours. The absence or disfunction of fathers is a theme that YA entertainment addresses  over, and over, and  over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.
Whether intended or not, the book gives us a window into what forms Blue’s taste in men. She thinks about Ronan, "There was something about his antagonism that made her want to court his favor, to earn his approval. The approval of someone like him, who clearly cared for no one, seemed like it would be worth more."
A longing for a father (or any man) who cares enough to be around that morphs into a desire to corral a boyfriend who also seems not to care in order to prove that she matters. I know this plot line; I see it repeatedly in the lives of the teenage girls with whom I work.  This is one of the the things that makes Ms. Steifvater so popular: she knows what resonates with her audience.

On Character and Community
When Declan introduces a new girlfriend to his buddies, Ronan says to her: "You've got quite a guy here, Ashley. You'll have a great night with him and then some other girl can have a great night with him tomorrow.” Harsh? Yes, but true. “He'd chosen his weapon well: only the truth, untempered by kindness."
After Ashley leaves, Gansey says to Ronan, "You treated her badly. You made the rest of us look bad." That’s a tough but important thing to say. We live our lives in community; the more our lives are intertwined, the more what we say and do impacts the reputation of those around us.

On True Friendship:
One of my favorite moments of dialogue in the book is between Adam, whose father has beaten him mercilessly, and Blue, whose father got her mom pregnant, left her, and never cared enough about Blue or Marua to return. 
"You hair is the color of dirt," she said.
"It knows where it came from."
"That's funny," Blue noted, "because then mine should be that color too.”
On Abuse:
At one point, Blue wonders why "a boy with a life as untroubled as Gansey's would have needed to learn how to build such as swift and convincing false front of happiness was beyond her."
She discovers that Gansey’s life was not as untroubled as his wealth led her to believe. Though Gansey was born into money, it did not buy happiness. His father was one of the most disturbing characters in the book, cloaking a harsh demand for perfection with his carefully chosen but vicious comments. It’s abuse, though not of the kind that makes headlines.
Adam, on the other hand, is abused in a far more conventional way. Perhaps their shared family history is why Gansey wants so desperately to help him. Gansey “imagined coming here one day and finding that Adam wasn’t here, but in the hospital, or worse, that Adam was here, but that something important had been beaten out of him."
Gansey knew what that felt like: "Sometimes, Gansey felt like his life was made up of a dozen hours he could never forget."
The problem is that while Adam wants to be free, he doesn’t want to be saved. Currently, Adam’s father controls him through brutality and fear; if Adam lets Gansey “save” him, he will owe Gansey – and that’s just another form of control. "It means I never get to be my own person. If I let you cover for me, then I'm yours. I'm his now, and then I'll be yours."
These subplots are grim but real. Adam eventually stands up to his father and wins, but his eardrum is terribly damaged. It’s the legacy of those who are carefully abused. Perhaps no one can tell by looking, but in both Gansey and Adam, “something permanent but invisible had happened."

On Religion
Ms. Steifvater does not seem shy about boldly acknowledging spiritual realities. In a culture that increasingly mocks the idea that realities may exist that transcend the physical, this kind of book – though fantasy – can play an important role.
  •  When Neeve is evil and terrifying. "There was something crafty now, to the dark voice. Something knowing and malicious, something that made Blue want to look over her shoulder...she felt cold somewhere very deep inside her." At one point, Blue realizes that even in the "harmless” dabbling, "maybe there were worse consequences that she had yet to discover." Neeve clarifies what that consequence might be: "You're looking for a for the devil. When there's a god, there's always a legion of devils." 
  •  When the kids visit an old, empty church, "There was no evidence there had ever been any pews, or any congregation. There was something bleak and meaningless about it: death with no afterlife." 
  •  Gansey was once bitten by hornets. He should have died, but he heard a voice say: "You will live because of Glendower. Someone else on the ley line is dying when they should not, and so you will live when you should not." Hmmmm. I’ve heard language like that other places. 
  •  In the end, Adam sacrifices himself of his own free will. It’s the only sacrifice that can make a difference. 
When Blue's mother says, "I didn't raise you to be judgmental," Blue replies, "Sure you did," and her mother agrees. In the spirit of that kind of refreshing honesty, here’s my judgment.
I like Ms. Stiefvater’s writing. She wrestles with serious issues. The Wolves of Mercy Falls had its shortcomings, but the arc of the trilogy dealt with mercy, forgiveness, truth, and human nature. The Raven Boys is no different. As I’ve already noted, her fictional characters intersect powerfully with the real world, at least in terms of their character, families, and relationships.
Having said that, I wonder about the impact of mixing magic, religion, and mythology as casually (and artfully) as she does. I think all three can be used in the service of a good story, but the mixture can be volatile. It’s one thing to read about epic Welsh magic; it’s another to combine that with current New Age and Wiccan ideas; it’s yet another to draw in churches, witches, conjurers and necromancers.
I look for stories that make us want to be a better people. In terms of challenging the readers' loyalty, character, and friendships, The Raven Boys is solid. In terms of pointing them in the right spiritual direction, I think it piques more interest in the legion of devils than it does in the God for whom Blue is apparently looking.

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