Books

Predicting success for Maggie Stiefvater's 'The Raven Boys'

The Raven Boys
A Novel

Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic: 416 pp., $17.99, ages 12 and up

In a young-adult market crowded with copycats, it's refreshing to find a book that blazes a path as unique as Maggie Stiefvater's "The Raven Boys." The first title in the "Raven Cycle" quartet is a dizzying paranormal romance tinged with murder and Welsh mythology that brings a family of oddball psychics into contact with the rarefied world of teen blue bloods.

It's an apocryphal idea that at times suffers from the complicated plot work required to pull it off, but like Stiefvater's bestselling werewolfian romance, the "Shiver" trilogy, and most recently her Michael L. Printz honor book about Celtic water horses, "The Scorpio Races," its originality and compelling characters are probably strong enough to pull readers through to the series' conclusion.

"The Raven Boys" begins with a prediction for Blue Sargent, a relentlessly sensible 16-year-old who didn't inherit her family's psychic abilities but is nevertheless shaped by them. For as long as Blue can remember, she's been told that if she kisses her true love, he will die. Doomed as that premonition is, it hadn't troubled Blue, who lived by a simple rule regarding the opposite sex: Steer clear.

That changes, of course, when she meets a cluster of so-called Raven Boys at the pizza parlor where she works part time. Blue, who has a predilection for homemade clothes, has somehow attracted the affections of two prep schoolers in crisp khaki pants, crested sweaters and top-siders. It isn't long before she finds herself in a nascent love triangle.

Boys are pretty hard to avoid, Blue's about to find out, especially when they're so darn attractive. Adam Parrish is a kindhearted hottie from the wrong side of the tracks who's fallen into the good graces of Richard Gansey, a rakish iconoclast with a "trust fund the size of most state lotteries," a vintage orange Camaro and the unusual hobby of hunting for a long-lost king reputed to be sleeping in a tomb somewhere in the woods outside Henrietta, Va.

Legend has it that whoever rouses King Glendower from his centuries-long slumber will be granted a wish. The problem is, several other people are also looking for the ancient ley line — a supernatural energy path — along which the tomb is buried. All of them, including Gansey, seek the advice of Blue's family, who have a good reputation, and track record, when it comes to seeing the future.

It's a tricky story line, and Stiefvater doesn't do readers any favors by introducing so many characters so early in the book that it's difficult to keep everyone straight. As the story progresses, the characters are well fleshed out, but it's difficult to keep track of all the interpersonal dynamics and motivations, even if they'll turn out to be necessary in books 2, 3 and 4.

This psychic thread is also moderately problematic. If Blue's relatives are so well regarded, it's odd they can't seem to "see" what will happen to Blue if she gets involved with the Raven Boys or which one is the true love she should avoid kissing. It could be they know and have chosen not to tell her … yet. There are, after all, at least 1,200 more pages to this story.

With "The Raven Boys," Stiefvater has borrowed the paranormal love triangle idea of her "Shiver" trilogy and the same sort of obscure, across-the-pond mythology that she used in "The Scorpio Races." She's also used a version of the same format; she alternates chapters between Blue, then the boys, until the two become completely entwined.

In the series kickoff, this entwining isn't romantic, other than to set up Blue's dueling attractions. There's only so much romance that can happen when the lead characters aren't allowed to get to first base without killing one of them off. When Blue defies her mother's wishes that she avoid the Raven Boys, it's the mystery, and race, to locate the ley line that takes center stage.

The scenes of Blue and the boys trekking the Virginia wilds are among the best in the book, showcasing Stiefvater's flair for banter and imaginative world-building. "The Raven Boys" isn't a perfect series kickoff, but it leaves room for this intriguing story to grow into something that lives up to Stiefvater's stellar reputation.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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