THE RAVEN CYCLE Review: Like Nothing Else You’ve Ever Read

Imagine JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL, but set in present day Virginia and written for teenagers.

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Last month, author Maggie Stiefvater released The Raven King, the fourth and final book in a series she began in September 2012 with The Raven Boys. The unusual tetralogy follows a group of teenagers - four boys and a girl - as they embark upon a romantic adventure steeped in Welsh mythology and deep magic in, of all places, a small Virginia town called Henrietta. The series is set in more or less present day, but there is something ancient and epic about the proceedings, a fabled quality that feels wonderfully at odds with the high school classes and comparatively typical teen flirtations.

Blue Sargent is a grumpy, punky teen and the daughter of a psychic, who lives with several other psychics, at 300 Fox Way. Blue, herself, has no clairvoyant abilities, but she is something of a psychic energy magnifier, bolstering any magic generated near her - which, in Henrietta, is a more frequent occurrence than not. After a curse and a prophecy, Blue is thrown in the path of four boys from the local private school, Aglionby Academy: Noah Czerny, Ronan Lynch, Adam Parrish, and their inadvertent leader, Richard Campbell Gansey III. Gansey's spent years obsessively following the path of Henrietta's ley line - a magical alignment running through town - in the hopes of discovering and awakening the mythical fifteenth century Welsh king, Owen Glendower.

This is a deeply weird story (at least as weird as Stiefvater's terrific Scorpio Races, recently optioned for adaptation), one that is rich and weighty with centuries of Welsh mythology and the extraordinary potential of magic. It's about boys and a girl, kids who worry about college and dread Latin class and fall hopelessly in love with each other, but it's also about, in no particular order: ancient, slumbering kings and princesses, magical forests, invisible energy paths, dreamt ravens and orphans and monstrous bird horrors, cursed kisses, prophesied deaths, occult rituals, murder, ghosts, demons, sexy hitmen, talking skeletons, time circles, psychic traitors, tree spirits, magical object peddlers and muscle cars. There is A LOT happening in The Raven Cycle, and all of it is uncommon. 

Stiefvater's best gift is in marrying believable teen dialogue with chimerical settings described like poetry. Her words are both authentic and uncanny, the rarest combination. In the most otherworldy scenes, we're still reminded that these are modern, American teenagers with a modern, American teenager way of speaking and feeling: 

It was impossible that it was winter. But it was no more impossible than anything else that had happened. 

They had come to a stand of naked willow trees on a gentle slope, and below them was the twist of a slow-moving, shallow creek. Malory had once told Gansey that where there were willows, there was water. Willows propagated, he said, by dropping seeds in moving water that then carried them downstream, allowing them to root on some distant shore. 

"And," Blue added, "there's water." 

Gansey turned to the others. Their breath came in clouds, and they all looked badly underdressed. Even the color of their skin looked wrong: too sun-flushed for this colorless winter air. Tourists from another season. He became aware that he was shivering, but he didn't know if it was from the newly winter cold or from anticipation. 

"Okay," he said to Blue. "What did you want to say in Latin?" 

Blue turned to Ronan. "Can you just say hello? That's polite." 

Ronan looked pained; polite was not his style. But he said, "Salve." To Blue, he said, "That actually means be well." 

"Super job," she replied. "Ask if they'll speak with us."

Now Ronan looked even more pained, because this made him look ridiculous, and that was even less his style, but he tilted his head back to the treetops and said, "Loquere tu nobis?" 

They all stood quietly. A hiss seemed to be rising, as if a faint, winter breeze rustled the leaves in the trees. But there were no leaves left on the branches to rustle. 

"Nothing," Ronan replied. "What did you expect?"

"Quiet," ordered Gansey. Because now the hissing was definitely more than a rustle. Now it had resolved into what sounded distinctly like whispered, dry voices. "Do you hear that?"

Everyone but Noah shook their heads. 

"I do," said Noah, to Gansey's relief. 

Gansey said, "Ask them to say it again."

Ronan did.

These books aren't everyone's bag, but I suspect you'll know if they're yours based on this passage, and what I've revealed of the series. If you love sprawling, peculiar, beautiful messes, The Raven Cycle is a sprawling, peculiar, beautiful mess. If you prefer your stories linear - some might even say coherent - then keep walking. Henrietta's ley line, and all of the sorcery and strangeness it contains, is not for you.