Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series ends today, as its fourth and final installment The Raven King is released. The story is highly unusual for a mainstream bestseller: It’s difficult to describe and it’s unconcerned with traditional touchstones of the genre, like plot. Its basic premise is about a group of friends on a quest for a sleeping king, but that sounds misleadingly conventional and has little to do with why the series has captured so many people. They love it because its characters are fun to hang out with even when they’re just eating lunch; because there is magic in its prose even when nothing overtly magical is happening; because it’s the most audaciously strange mainstream series of recent years. And that’s why it’s so important to fantasy, going forward.
Most fantasy — particularly YA — follows certain rules. The writing is straightforward and there is a clear-cut plot with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Events happen. Usually, they are the kinds of marketable things that can be easily distilled into film adaptations: climactic battles, kisses, clues, revelations, dramatic tears. Look at Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy, or look at Cassandra Clare’s books or The Hunger Games or the Divergent trilogy. Each are wildly popular because they’re wildly derivative. There’s nothing wrong with that, but such books are the majority.
This is partly because fantasy is naturally a genre of tropes and partly because, as YA has boomed, many simply toss in past ingredients that have worked, keen to jump aboard a flourishing bandwagon.
The Raven Cycle series is in the minority. It’s not an entirely special snowflake; it employs Arthurian mythology. Fantasy tropes are certainly present: There are quests and kisses and dramatic tears and revelations and stalwart heroes and devious villains. But the way Stiefvater stitches them together is unusual and defies easy categorization. Stiefvater recently told Inverse, “The sense of something more is a human constant, but culture wiggles and does alternately expansive and constrictive things about presenting it,” and the Raven Cycle never stops expanding and constricting.
The first book begins with what seems like plot: A girl named Blue falls in with a group of four boys who are on a quest, and there’s even a prophecy (she can’t kiss her true love or he will die) — what’s not mainstream fantasy about that?
But it’s a smokescreen, a glorious trick. The series is really Stiefvater’s playground for exploring her characters to a degree rarely seen in the plot-heavy realm of YA fantasy (or even, let’s be honest, a lot of adult fantasy). In fact, the story is at its best when the characters are doing nothing more than hanging out in slice-of-life moments. The second book in the series, The Dream Thieves, is the strongest because it’s mostly comprised of such moments and it functions as a novel-long character study.
For instance, it manages to reveal that the story’s most intriguing character is gay without spelling it out in so many words. It trusts the reader enough to realize they don’t need to be spoon-fed.
Adam was in the dream, too; he traced the tangled pattern of ink with his finger. As he traced it further and further down on the bare skin of Ronan’s back, Ronan himself disappeared entirely, and the tattoo got smaller and smaller. It was a Celtic knot the size of a wafer, and then Adam, who had become Kavinsky, said “Scio quid estis vos.” He put the tattoo in his mouth and swallowed it. Ronan woke with a start, ashamed and euphoric. The euphoria wore off long before the shame did. He was never sleeping again.
Or it has amusing occasions like this:
One moment, she was wearing clothing, and the next moment, she was wearing a bikini. Fifty percent of the world was brown skin and fifty percent was orange nylon. From the Mona Lisa smile on Orla’s lips, it was clear she was pleased to finally be allowed to demonstrate her true talents. A tiny part of Gansey’s brain said: You have been staring for too long. The larger part of his brain said: ORANGE.
Neither has much to do with the plot — said quest for the sleeping king — but as readers, we don’t care. It’s such a delight to explore the complicated depths of Ronan Lynch’s psyche — to observe the minute interactions of the rest of the gang — that those moments create their own kind of magic stronger than the actual magic.
The one drawback to such a storytelling approach is that, when it’s time for the plot to kick in, it’s bound to be anticlimactic. The Raven King is the weakest entry in the series precisely for that reason. By necessity, it affords less time to slice-of-life moments, and when we do get them, many are with a new character shoehorned in at the 11th hour. There’s nothing wrong with Henry Chang, but in the final installment of a series, it’s odd for someone new to get more screen time than established characters we’ve followed for four books. If Orla, The Grey Man, Declan Lynch (who does make a satisfying comeback), or even one of Kavinsky’s former cronies got the emphasis Chang did, it wouldn’t feel as random, — because they’ve been around kicking for longer. But even though his presence doesn’t work, the story’s willingness to try it is emblematic of its balls.
Just because The Raven King is underwhelming, it doesn’t diminish the importance of the Raven Cycle as a whole. More mainstream YA fantasy should take chances on trusting the reader to care about more than plot, than easily defined relationships, than simplified prose. The Raven Cycle falters in The Raven King when it overtly tries to be magical, because its magic lies in its quiet character moments, its lovely prose, and its ambitious adherence to its own originality.
If this can be the future of fantasy — whether YA or adult — we’re in for a hell of a ride.