A review of The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Published 2012, Scholastic
Gansey looked up at her, and there was a crease between his eyebrows. “I don’t know how to choose. Could you pick a card for me? Will that work?”
… Persephone answered from behind Blue. “If you want it to.”
“It’s about intention,” Maura added.
If you were an author, and you didn’t know how to choose to steer your story or your character, could you have someone else ‘pick a card’ for you? Is it one of those things that would work because you want it to? Does it really all come down to intention?
Because I work in publishing, I can’t help wondering how much (or how little) editing went into a book. Whenever I catch a major flaw in a book I’m reading, I have to ask: did the editor not catch that? Or if he/she did, why would the author have ignored something like that? And all the time, I wonder: how much (or how little) of what I’m reading is really the author? the publisher?
So I read The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater (of the Shiver series) and I’m thinking the same thing: if we quantify the content based on the author’s versus the editor’s intent, how would one measure up against the other? And the thing is, if their collaboration worked, the question wouldn’t even exist because one part is an organic and integral part of the other.
And here, a major element of the novel just does not work. I don’t remember ever having to say this about any other story. Friends would maybe always hear/read me say that the love angle in a certain story could have been done away with. But I have never, EVER, felt like a lead character was completely unnecessary.
Unfortunately, in my honest opinion, The Raven Boys could have done without the girl.
That girl is Blue Sargent. She is not only a protagonist, but THE protagonist in this book. In a novel written using the third person with limited scope, 23 of 49 chapters (almost 50%) are focused on Blue (the other chapters are divvied up among two of the raven boys and the one villain). Also, both the Prologue and Chapter 1 are about her. And, the suggested catalog entry summary for this book reads:
Though she is from a family of clairvoyants, Blue Sargent’s only gift seems to be that she makes other people’s talents stronger, and when she meets Gansey, one of the Raven boys from the expensive Aglionby Academy, she discovers that he has talents of his own — and that together their talents are a dangerous mix.
So there is no question about it: Blue is the protagonist here. But I have read this book through and through twice, and parsed it two more times just to confirm this: none of her decisions propel the story onward and upward. (Excelsior!) She goes along with the boys’ decisions, and things happen TO her, but she doesn’t really make anything happen.
Let me rephrase that. She doesn’t make anything happen out of her own free will. It probably is a bad side effect of the author’s choice to endow her with such a passive gift, but the things that do happen because of Blue just happen because she exists, and not because she actually does something. Her psychic guardians get to contribute to the plot because they use Blue’s powers, as do the titular raven boys. But that’s it. If the author replaced her with an object, a thing, a machine that can do what Blue can — a mechanical magic/energy amplifier of sorts — and led the boys and the psychics to this gadget, the story would have remained essentially the same.
What, then, is she for? I hate to say it, but she seems to be there just so there can be a love angle. And if I’m right that Blue is there just to serve the boys’ intentions—just to be an accessory that also happens to be pretty, how un-feminist of the author (and the editor) is that? Even Ella (Enchanted), who was cursed to do anything and everything she was told, made up for that seeming powerlessness with a heroic amount of will.
So I consider that, then I think of the title (not Blue and the Raven Boys), then I realize that the raven boys’ search for The Raven King is a strong enough narrative in itself, and I have to ask: Whose brilliant idea was it to include a love angle in this already compelling plot? (I’m not trying to imply anything, but I would just like to mention that David Levithan, teen romance god, was the editor of this book.)
Yes, I am extremely hard to convince about the absolute necessity of love angles in certain stories, but when faced with stories like this, am I not right to be this dubious? When strong narratives contain romantic angles that are not only unnecessary but ultimately disruptive, am I not even a little justified in thinking that the author/editor/publisher—in trying to create a sure bestseller, given the undeniable fact that romance sells—opted to sacrifice the opportunity to deliver an excellent novel to their readers in exchange for profit?
As there are lesser novels that suffer the same romantic flaw, it is unfortunate that I am making an example of The Raven Boys, an exciting and well-written novel that features complex and three-dimensional characters. However, precisely because of its admirable merits as a mystery novel, it becomes a perfect jump-off point for discussing when romance feels completely welcome and when it appears to have been merely pulled, well, out of the blue.