Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: reviewed by Gillian Philip

My first Maggie Stiefvater. I KNOW. I'm not sure what's been keeping me - possibly the dread phrase 'paranormal romance' (not that I've anything against paranormal or romance, but in that two-word combination I always fear wet girls and improbable boys). I've been scolded for not getting round to The Scorpio Races (I do love a kelpie), and when the Raven Boys smouldered at me from the table in Waterstones, I knew they were The Ones. For that cover, frankly, I'd have picked it up even without the author recommendation.

It's not a frantic page-turner, and that's a good thing. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, introducing the reader to Blue Sargent and her family - a trio (plus one) of female psychics - and to the Raven Boys of expensive, exclusive Aglionby School: Gansey and his three friends. That's not to say there isn't intrigue from the start - we learn on page one that if Blue ever kisses her true love, he'll die, which doesn't half make for some suspense when she starts getting involved (reluctantly) with the Raven Boys. But I loved that I wasn't expected to fall for Gansey on Blue's (or the author's) say-so. She and Gansey share the telling of the story, so we get to know them both well before there's any suggestion of that fatal kiss.

Gansey and his friends - scholarship boy Adam from the wrong side of the tracks, hard-edged Ronan, and the quiet, self-effacing Noah - are obsessed with ley lines, most particularly the ones that run through the small town of Henrietta. Obsession, of course, never turns out entirely well; and they aren't the first to fixate on the lines and on the secrets of a long-buried Welsh king. As the story picks up pace and thrills, and Blue joins forces with the rich boys to lend them her skills as a kind of psychic 'amplifier', the book blends mystery, murder and the supernatural in a truly spellbinding way.

Coming to the end I realised for the first time that The Raven Boys might not be a standalone title - and indeed sequels are planned - but to be honest, despite the loose ends and unanswered questions, didn't expect more. Blue and the boys seem made for an uncertain future. But I'll be buying those sequels anyway.

The Raven Boys is a delight to read for every sentence, for every joke or observation tossed into the mix with apparent ease. I felt the heat and smelt the dust, and I certainly got the shivers. Most of all, how refreshing to read public schoolboy characters who aren't stereotypes. The friendship between the four boys is complex, real and elegantly analysed; and so is their developing relationship with Blue. Her prejudices against them are challenged every bit as thoroughly as their own attitudes to her and to their own wealth and privilege (or, in Adam's case, lack of them).

I didn't see the twist coming, but when it arrived it made perfect sense - the best kind. I loved the story and the writing, I loved the boys and I loved Blue. It was simply a pleasant bonus that I couldn't help casting David Tennant in the role of the villain.


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