Saturday, March 19, 2016

What we're reading: A teen fantasy series with adult appeal?

For the third year in a row, one of our teen book clubs chose to read The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater, the first in a series of four books whose last volume will be released in April. And for the third time, despite the fact that we (Melissa and Anarda, the two teen librarians) adore this series, the book received mixed reviews, as well as a not particularly high rating from our 8th and 9th graders. So we considered why, and discovered that the older the age group who reads it, the better they like it. Which would lead us to conclude that perhaps this series, while written for young adults, is best appreciated by a little older audience? Perhaps it's more of a "new adult" series for 20-somethings...or perhaps it's just a good urban fantasy series that anyone could appreciate.

The first book, The Raven Boys, is definitely centered around a group of teens: four boys who are students at the exclusive Aglionby Academy located in the small hamlet of Henrietta, Virginia, and one local girl who swore she would never get involved in any way with "those guys," but...fate deems otherwise.

The premise, part A: Richard Gansey III (known simply as Gansey) is obsessed with the Welsh king, Glendower, whom he believes is buried somewhere in Virginia on a ley line. He has drawn his friends--Ronan, Adam, and Noah, all with their own interesting histories and baggage--into his quest.

The premise, part B: The girl, with the unlikely name of Blue, is the daughter of a psychic. She and her mother live with two other women who are also psychics. Blue is the only one in the "family" without psychic abilities, but she has the peculiar skill of enhancing the psychic abilities of anyone nearby, so she is in demand as a companion when readings and other supernatural events are taking place. She has also been told, since she was old enough to remember, that if she kisses her true love, he will die.

The series begins in the graveyard of an abandoned church, at midnight on St. Mark's Eve. Blue's mother has the ability to see a vision on St. Mark's Eve of all the people in the town who will be dead within the year, and Blue always goes along with her, both to enhance her reading and also to write down the names so that her mother, Maura, can advise people to get their affairs in order. But this year, two things are different: Instead of going herself, Maura sends her sister, Neeve, a nationally known psychic who is visiting the household, in her place, and this time Blue, instead of being oblivious to the spirits, sees one for herself. She approaches him and asks his name. "Gansey," he replies. "There's nothing else." And the next day, four boys show up at the psychics' house for a reading....

If you wanted to label this series, it would probably fall within the purview of "urban fantasy"--except that Henrietta, Virginia is definitely rural! But it meets the requirements of being set in contemporary times and containing supernatural elements within a realistic setting.

The things we love about these books:

The characterizations: All the characters are individuals who come alive on the page. They are fascinating, engaging, and memorable. The adults in the series take more prominence as we move farther into the story in the subsequent two books and, unlike in a lot of YA fiction, do not feel like they are mere contrivances put in place for teens to rail against; they have their own motivations, and they, like the teens, are respected by the author as real people.

Anarda's theory is that this may be why this series is not as popular with younger teens. The characters are not obviously good or bad, and sometimes their behavior is hard to understand. It's ambiguous, and it's complicated--which may be too much for a casual reader who wants everything laid out neatly. Stiefvater isn't neat! (Well, she is, but her writing isn't.)

The writing: Stiefvater's prose is lyrical and descriptive, and draws you into the setting and the story to an unusual degree.

The treatment of romance: While there is romance present in this book, it is a minor theme within the major plot that enhances, rather than dominates. As teen librarians who read a LOT of YA fiction, we are so appreciative when the author doesn't feel the need to make the hero or heroine automatically and immediately fall for someone (or worse yet, two someones, the dreaded cliche), but has the confidence in teens and in her own work to allow the book or series to be about something more. 

This series is definitely about something more. The thing I think I enjoy about it the most is that the fantasy elements are so perfectly folded into the day-to-day activity that they become, not mundane, certainly, but normal for this group. The search for Glendower is detailed with all of Gansey's painstaking background research, but also with the serendipity of wonder and possibility. The abilities of Ronan, of Adam, of the psychics, while not within the realm of our reality, are made to feel within the realm of these characters' purview. 

In short, this is a smart, sharp, engaging, entertaining series that others than teens can enjoy!


The rest of the books are, in order: The Dream Thieves, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, and The Raven King. Burbank Public Library also offers these books as audio recordings. The Raven King will appear on our shelves in early May! Giving you just enough time to read the other three books in anticipation...

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