“Richard Gansey III had forgotten how many times he had been told he was destined for greatness.”
I’ve just finished reading my most highly anticipated book of 2016, The Raven King, the fourth book and conclusion to Maggie Stiefvater’s masterful Raven Cycle, and I’m still trying to process all of my feelings. There are feelings of immense satisfaction. There are feelings of disappointment. There are feelings of grief. It is a gorgeous and perfect ending to four years of reading, it an imperfect conclusion that didn’t quite answer all of the questions that Stiefvater put forth. There are elements I loved, and aspects that I…did not love so much. All in all, I think The Raven King has left me with similar feelings to almost every single volume that closes a series that I’ve ever read: a sense of, is this really it? So much pressure lies on the final book in a series; it’s the last note of a lengthy epic, and the author has to tie together all the dangling threads they’ve incorporated over the course of years. I can honestly only think of a few series in which the last chapter granted me a complete sense of closure. Maggie does it better than most, but there are still a few missteps that I couldn’t help but find disappointing.
It took me forever to truly start the book. I ordered the entire series from Maggie Stiefvater’s local bookstore in Richmond, VA, The Fountain Bookstore; the moment I saw the box on my step I almost crawled out of my skin I was so excited. Yet, when I cracked it open and read the first sentence, I was stricken with a sort of bibliosadness. The idea that this was the last time I would ever read a Raven Cycle book for the first time struck a sentimental chord of one part melancholy and one part anticipation. I actually read the Prologue twice because I had been so tired when I started it the night before and I wanted to do justice to my reading experience.
The first chapter is a perfect example of Stiefvater at her best: the cultivation of the ensemble cast. All of her characters’ personalities have been constructed over the course of four years, and as such there is a delicate web of interlacing familiarities that reads rich and true. Her writing is proof that she understands people, and I can think of no higher praise for an author’s powers of character development. Unfortunately I don’t think I got quite enough time with a goodly bundle of characters on page at the same time; I still enjoyed most of my time with individual players, but all that individual character introspection wasn’t quite as dynamic as the firecrackers that go off whenever the gang’s all there.
Even though I prefer the Raven Cycle characters to hang out like a gothic bunch of grapes as much as possible, I do understand why they got so much alone time in The Raven King. These books are about magic and demons and Welsh kings taking magical naps for centuries at a time, but they’re also about growing up, with each book exploring a different aspect of moving from innocence to experience. The Raven King sees its teenage personalities into that nebulous state of early adulthood. They’re all becoming aware of how the identities they’ve cultivated through adolescence fit into the wider scheme of the world; it’s a transition from looking inward to looking outward, a shift in perspective and (hopefully) a realization that you’re not actually the center of the universe. In spending so much time inside individual character’s heads, the reader gets to sit a spell inside a maturing psyche as it zooms its perspective way the fuck out, and it’s a pretty cool ride.
I understand (or at least, I think I do) that this sense of expansion is why Stiefvater introduced new characters and new plotlines, but I still feel that the further complication of an already complex plotline was distracting and a bit unnecessary. I get that this sense of wider sense of interconnectedness puts Blue et al in the context of a bigger story involving more people, that it partially takes them out of the immediate bulls eye of self-importance, but it felt a bit like Stiefvater cast her net a bit too wide and was unable to pull it back in fully. I would have preferred to spend more time with all the established threads of the story than with some of the newer elements; all the extra strands meant that some (really important!) questions never got fully answered, and I couldn’t help but wonder why she chose to spend so much page time on new shit at the expense of old.
I’m also going to be frank and say that there is some shit that is straight up BANANAS in this book. BANANAS. I don’t want to spoil anything but as soon as you read it (which you really, really should), you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Despite the above quibbles, I still loved The Raven King, because here’s the thing: even though I don’t think this is Maggie Stiefvater’s strongest work, I still think it’s a hell of a lot stronger than the majority of the books that I read. Her writing at its strongest is so luminous and perfect that she almost needs to falter to keep that shit real; her imperfections make her gifts seem a little more human, because seriously, is there ANYTHING that woman can’t do?
I could go on and on and on about this book but I’ve already written over a thousand words and I think that’s probably enough for one book review. I would be remiss in not saying that while aspects of her plot thread was not my favorite thing in the book, Piper is probably one of my favorite villains of all time. I would also be remiss in failing to mention that every smooch that happens in this book made my heart grow seventeen sizes and also made my eyes leak a hell of a lot.
All this is to say that at its essential level, The Raven King satisfied some of my most pressing bookish needs. It was beautiful and flawed, comforting and terrifying, it was everything that I wanted and not quite enough all at the same time. I’m can’t help but mourn the fact that I will never read another book about Blue and Gansey, Adam and Ronan, Noah and all the women at 300 Fox Way, but I also can’t wait to read this book, and all the others, over and over and over again.