The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, 2016, 448 pages
I’ve thought a lot about what I want to say about the final book in the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King. I’ve always been a fan of Stiefvater’s ornate-yet-subtle style, and I think that’s something she held to pretty well in The Raven King. I know many readers were holding on to the idea that The Raven King would not only be just as good as the books leading up to it, but perhaps even better. Stiefvater would have to write her way out of the promised death of Gansey and the angst that was sure to come with finding Glendower and obtaining the favor he was meant to grant.
Reviewing this book without spoilers is immensely difficult, so I’ll be as vague as possible while still trying to convey the issues here. Both of the events mentioned above were so lackluster compared to the rest of the series. I’ve struggled a lot with this because, just before the book was released, Maggie Stiefvater shared a post on her blog which described how she wanted her readers to feel after finishing the book: “I don’t want them to be able to say what it is they want, though — I want it to be a bigger thing than words. I hope they get to the end and don’t know what to do for the rest of the day. I hope they feel unsettled and needing of something more. I want messages that say, ‘Stiefvater, please, I just want …’ and then silence. They don’t know what they want. They just want.” I opened up The Raven King with this on my mind and, when I finished the book, very much wanting and still feeling champagne-sparkly from the rush of the end of a series, I felt like Stiefvater was a genius — she had succeeded!
And yet. I turned over the events of the book in my head. Yes, I wanted — I wanted more fireworks, more intensity, more answers. I don’t think this was what Stiefvater meant, I realized. Or, if she did, imposing that desire onto her readers before they had a chance to read the books feels wrong. Let’s suppose my initial understanding was incorrect and Stiefvater wanted readers to feel compelled to embody Gansey and his quest for more — to be more, to be part of something bigger than himself, to be, as Henry Cheng and Gansey both say at one point during the series, a prince among men. In brief moments, I did feel that way. I wanted a quest, an adventure, a world that shimmers in a way ours does not. But those moments were short-lived and it was not, ultimately, what I felt as I turned the final page.
Now, let’s suppose Stiefvater wanted readers to want more of the Raven Cycle. She certainly succeeded there, leaving characters without the completed arcs they deserved, ending main plot points with no bang, in short — not delivering what was promised. If this is what Stiefvater meant (and I’m not sure it was, I certainly hope it wasn’t), I think it’s an awfully cruel thing to do to readers. What actually happened here, I’ll leave to you to decide. I’ve turned it over and over for the last week and still can’t figure it out. Either way, I feel a bit jilted.
As I’ve gained distance from the book, I’ve become more critical of it while simultaneously romanticizing it more. Stiefvater has a way of embedding symbolism and meaning that emerges long after the book has ended even without second readings. So perhaps I’m catching on to some of that now, which still leaves me in a place where I’m unable to give The Raven King a solid rating one way or another. One moment, I’m angry at the lack of resolution, the next, I’m marveling at the symbolism within that lack of resolution. I’m probably putting too much stock into Stiefvater’s intentions, but as a writer who is so-very-present on social media and who regularly engages with interpretations of her text, Stiefvater kind of brings that onto herself.
I’d also very much like to address the racism present in the whole series, but especially in The Raven King. With Henry Cheng playing a much bigger role than he previously had, there are multiple instances of blatant anti-Asian sentiments and some of the “subtler” (subtle to white people, mostly) racism such as the perpetuated Asian mob stereotype in Henry’s mother and the whole “dragon lady” trope. I won’t speak at length on it because as a white person, I don’t have the place to. I just want to say I saw it, it was inappropriate, and I hope Stiefvater does better in the future. I welcome those with a more nuanced perspective on the subject than I to comment further and only add that I was severely disappointed to see two characters I so love(d) engaging in racist mocking, regardless of the cultural context of Virginia and teenage boys.
Like a lot of the Raven Cycle, throughout the final novel I felt consistently lost without direction, but felt like that was how I was supposed to feel or that there’s something everyone else is getting about the series and its plot that I’m not and never will. I can never get a good grasp on the Raven Cycle world, despite how incredibly detailed and grounded it seems — there’s always something painfully vague about it. It’s like I missed out on some quintessential childhood experience that would clear it all up. I still don’t imagine the women of 300 Fox Way as everyone else seems to — when I see fan art of young Calla, Persephone, and the whole bunch, I tilt my head to the side in wonder, as they are still stuck as middle-aged and older women in my imagination. It’s been that way since The Raven Boys. I always feel like I’m doing something wrong when I’m reading this series.
And yet for all this criticism, there’s something really special about it all, even the last book. Like everything before it, The Raven King doesn’t confine itself to young adult literature by ignoring adult characters or adult-only scenes. The Gray Man and Maura have moments together. Piper Greenmantle and her father, too. Stiefvater makes the world very real in that way, despite Maura’s throwing-caution-to-the-wind parenting style. I’m still disappointed in it all, but I can’t outright say I disliked *The Raven King*, either. I wanted more for it, to be sure, but it also feels like it’s exactly what it was meant to be. It’s a jumble.
The only thing to do, it seems, is glare in Stiefvater’s general direction with a mix of annoyance and awe.
(With an aside that I’m giving it three hearts; I’d originally given it four on Goodreads, but with more perspective and too much confusion over my real feelings about the book — no doubt influenced by Stiefvater’s outside-the-book comments, the event I attended at Hooray for Books in Alexandria, my general admiration for Stiefvater aside from The Raven King, and the Goodreads reviews I read after finishing the book and still considering my own feelings [check out Alienor’s review for something a bit more coherent, if spoilery] — I think three is the best I can do. Maybe three-and-a-half, depending on the day.)
You can read my review of The Raven Boys here. I never got around to The Dream Thieves or Blue Lilly, Lilly Blue. Oops.
❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤