Terrifying and beautiful: Maggie Stiefvater – The Scorpio Races

It’s been a long time that I felt like this after a book. The immediate need to tell everyone about it and how wonderful it was overwhelmed me so I texted my sister last night that she had to read this book as well. And so should you! The Scorpio Races might give you a major book hangover but it is so damn good you won’t even mind.

THE SCORPIO RACES
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic, 2011
Ebook: 447 pages
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My rating: 9/10

First sentence: It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.
At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.
Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

I picked this up because I loved The Raven Cycle and trust Maggie Stiefvater as a writer enough to just buy her books without really checking what they’re about. I knew it was about horses – every cover of every edition lets you know that – but when I found out that it’s about water horses and that water horses are terrifying, flesh-eating beasts that come out of the ocean and want to eat you, I was a little on the fence. But not for long.

Kate “Puck” Connolly has lived on the island of Thisby her entire life. When her parents died, leaving her and her two brothers behind, it became hard to make ends meet, but Puck loves her island home more than anything and will do whatever it takes to keep the small family together. Which is why she enters the Scorpio Races, a yearly event promising lots of money to the winner, and lots of death all around. What’s more, Puck intends to enter with her regular island horse, Dove, when everyone else will be riding a water horse – much taller, stronger, and faster than any regular horse could hope to be. But also much more drawn to the ocean from which they came, much less easy to control, much more bloodthirsty…

Sean Kendrick knows water horses, none better than his-but-not-really-his Corr. As the reigning champion of the Scorpio Races, he and his water horse Corr have built up a relationship and Sean a reputation. While he works with horses everyday, he works for the rich yard owner Benjamin Malvern and yearns for freedom. He may not say much but Sean is one of those characters that show off Maggie Stiefvater’s writing gift so well – the quiet ones, the ones that speak more with glances, with body language, with actions, than with words, but manage to say so much anyway.

It took me a while to get into this book. The idea of killer horses seemed a little far-fetched even though I had read the myth of the kelpie before (another killer horse that drags you under the water to drown and possibly eat you). As someone with no experience of horses whatsoever (because sadly, allergies), I had this idea in my brain that they are mostly flighty, shy, scared creatures – so imagining one grinning at you with bloody teeth and actually wanting to bite your neck with them took a bit of imagination. But once I was there, I was all in.

For a book with relatively little plot, this was really a riveting ride. I don’t think I blinked once throughout the second half of the book. I did not put it down, I may have stopped breathing every once in a while. Yeah, very little happens – Puck enters the races, trains for them, meets Sean, he trains as well, they run in the races… – but SO MUCH HAPPENS!! Their character development, not just as individuals but with each oather and with their horses is why I couldn’t put the book down. As much as with an action-packed thriller, I wanted to know what happens next. The stakes are immensely high for both Puck and Sean, they both have really good reasons to want to win, but they also come to care for each other in the process.

The more I read, the more I learned about the (fictional quasi-Irish) island of Thisby, its people, its customs, its problems and its beauties. I learned to love it almost the way Puck and Sean do, despite the terror horses coming onto shore every year, killing livestock, killing people, sometimes letting themselves be caught and trained, only to be raced in the Scorpio Races. It’s a magical place, although the only true fantasy element of this story is the fact that horses want to eat your face – so if you like magical realism, stories that could be real except for one tiny, little, magical detail, then you will like this.  The Scorpio Races themselves are the climax of the book and I don’t think I have ever nor will I ever again read about a horse race as exciting as this.

Many books have good endings, some even great ones. But it is a rare book that delivers such an emotional punch with the very last line, where the last line matters. I was absolutely devastated when I got to the ending. The entire tone of the book sets you up for a bittersweet one – you know you’re not going to get a fairy tale ending, where everyone is happy and everything turns out perfect, and that wouldn’t feel sincere after a tale like this. But Maggie Stiefvater truly hit the sweet spot with her ending of choice. I couldn’t think of a better suited one – or one that rattles my heart more.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

Maggie Stiefvater – The Raven King

This is it, guys. I know all of you have probably read this book ages ago when it came out but I’ve been drawing it out. Ending a book series is always hard, but when the ending seems to be pre-determined from the very first chapter of the first book, that makes it even harder. But, as I can’t keep away from Ronan and the other Raven boys, I did eventually read the book. I may not have loved it as much as The Dream Thieves (do I ever love anything as much as The Dream Thieves?), but it is a worthy and beautiful ending to a truly amazing YA series.

raven king

THE RAVEN KING
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic Press, 2016
Hardcover: 439 pages
Series: The Raven Cycle #4
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Richard Gansey III had forgotten how many times he had been told he was destined for greatness.

Nothing living is safe. Nothing dead is to be trusted.
For years, Gansey has been on a quest to find a lost king. One by one, he’s drawn others into this quest: Ronan, who steals from dreams; Adam, whose life is no longer his own; Noah, whose life is no longer a lie; and Blue, who loves Gansey… and is certain she is destined to kill him.
Now the endgame has begun. Dreams and nightmares are converging. Love and loss are inseparable. And the quest refuses to be pinned to a path.

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Don’t be me. Don’t try and draw out this book just to make it last longer. First, you will fail anyway because this book refuses to be put down, and secondly, it takes away from the emotional punch when you do force yourself to put it away. Because guys, this is it. This is the end. And it is an amazing, perfect ending to a brilliant series that defies all the tropes of YA books. As a long-time YA avoider, I can only say that – like probably any genre or type of literature – there are bad books and there are good books. And then there are gems like this series. Don’t condemn an entire section of the book store just because you had one (or ten) bad experience.

Just like us, the characters in this story know that the end is coming. At least the end of something, of their search for Glendower, their quest, their big destiny. Blue and Gansey continue to be a lovely couple, despite their difficulties (no kissing, remember), but it was – again – Ronan who got all my attention. I’ve been in love with this guy since day one, but in The Dream Thieves, seeds for a romance started growing that I’d hoped so very much would work out. Having just read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I know that not all authors are willing to go with their characters’ “organic” love interest (if you’ve read the play too, you’ll know what I mean), but Maggie Stiefvater is amazing and just lets her characters be who they are. Whew, writing this without spoilers is becoming more and more of a tightrope act and if you haven’t read this series at all, I won’t make much sense. Also if you haven’t read this series, what are you doing here? Go read The Raven Boys!

Having established a larger cast throughout the previous three books, I found that some characters were left behind a little or didn’t get as much attention as I’d have liked. The inclusion of the fairly newish Henry Cheng felt forced, although I did end up liking him a lot. I don’t really see why, if he was essential, he couldn’t be introduced earlier or at least more naturally. It almost read like he was added as an afterthought. So I’m not quite sure about him, especially as his presence takes precious page time away from Noah, or Ronan’s brothers, for example. There were some great moments involving Noah and Blue in the previous books, and that was completely missing here.

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But let’s get down to what everybody’s been waiting for. The search for Glendower and – more importantly – Blue’s prophecy. No spoilers, I promise! Both plot strings reach a conclusion. I found both pretty satisfying, if you can say that when your heart has been ripped out a billion times along the way. But yes, of all the endings I could have imagined, Stiefvater deliverd one that both surprised me and didn’t make me mad. I honestly didn’t think that was possible.

However, with the subplots adding up throughout the series, something got lost as well. I believe The Raven Cycle reached its peak with The Dream Thieves, which had just enough going on to be fast paced but also put the right amount of focus on character development and the complex relationships between this group of young people. In The Raven King, with several threats raining down on these guys, and many other viewpoint characters who get their own chapters, there simply wasn’t much time for the quiet, more contemplative moments. Those are my favorite parts so I was sad to miss them. I would have gladly dropped some side characters – or at least chapters focusing on them – in favor of more Raven Boys and Blue.

Now I’m done bitching about this book not being exactly what I wanted it to be, let me repeat some things I’ve said about the other books in the series. Maggie Stiefvater is a wizard. She expresses more in one sentence than other writers do in entire books; her word choice is delicate and sometimes you only understand just how clever she is many chapters later. I can’t wait to re-read the Raven Cycle because I’m convinced this is the kind of story where re-reads pay off and let you see a whole different side of things.

The development these characters went through is honest and raw. They have each grown into themselves, they have sacrificed and learned, they have learned to deal with life when it doesn’t go their way (and when it does), and most of all they have all found each other. This chosen family with its many, many kinds and facets of love makes the Raven Cycle one of the best young adult book series I have ever read.

All things considered, I enjoyed The Raven King and how it toyed with my emotions. But most of all I liked it because it’s the final chapter in a bigger story that I ADORE. After all, it introduced me to the world of Aglionby sweaters and psychics, big flashy cars and sinister prophecies, ravens and trees that speak Latin. This series was my first foray into Maggie Stiefvater’s world but, boy, it won’t be my last. I’ll gladly let her break my heart over and over again.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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The Raven Cycle:
  1. The Raven Boys
  2. The Dream Thieves
  3. Blue Lily, Lily Blue
  4. The Raven King

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Maggie Stiefvater – Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Ah, Renay, how can I ever thank you enough? My love for the Raven Boys had been cemented with The Dream Thieves, but now I’m at the edge of my seat for the series conclusion. Let me join you, legions who are eagerly awaiting Blue’s first kiss (or dreading it), the discovery of Glendower (or not), and the saving of Gansey (or not).

blue lily lily blueBLUE LILY, LILY BLUE
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic, 2014
Ebook: 416 pages
Series: The Raven Cycle #3
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Persephone stood on the bare mountaintop, her ruffled ivory dress whipping around her legs, her masses of white-blond curls streaming behind her.

There is danger in dreaming. But there is even more danger in waking up.

Blue Sargent has found things. For the first time in her life, she has friends she can trust, a group to which she can belong. The Raven Boys have taken her in as one of their own. Their problems have become hers, and her problems have become theirs.

The trick with found things though, is how easily they can be lost.

Friends can betray.
Mothers can disappear.
Visions can mislead.
Certainties can unravel.

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What can I say that I haven’t already said about this series? I still love it so so much and what makes me happier than anything is that the books keep getting better. Whereas the first volume focused mostly on setting up the characters, the second one already advanced the plot a fair bit. Ronan’s ability to take stuff out of his dreams was a major surprise and a game-changer of epic proportions. But from the beginning, the overarching storyline was always Gansey’s search for Glendower, the Welsh king supposedly buried somewhere around Henrietta, who would grant a wish to the person that wakes him up. Blue Lily, Lily Blue is where the group finally finds something.

I am still reading this series mostly for the Raven Boys – because I love them to bits, I think we’ve established that – but this book also kept me on the edge of my seat for pure plot reasons. Not only Glendower is buried around the area, but there are supposedly three sleepers, one of which must not, on any account, be awoken. I can say very little about the plot without giving away too much, but I have to mention Gwenllian. That woman is so creepy, I thought for a moment I had fallen into a thriller rather than a YA fantasy. The first encounter with Gwenllian sent literal chills down my spine and I feared for the lives of the characters I’d come to care for so much. Her prophetic sing-song may sound like gibberish at first but, dealing with Blue and the Raven Boys, I soon suspected that there is more meaning to it than we may think at first. Deciphering that meaning is a whole different thing.

But I love how Maggie Stiefvater keeps surprising her readers. Just when you think you’ve got it mostly figured out, you know what kind of story you are reading, something so different happens that the ground gets pulled out from under your feet. Now, some readers may not like this feeling, but I can’t get enough of it. Twist that plot, turn it upside down, tell us all the characters’ secrets. Secrets are a big part of the series but I never had the feeling that a character kept back vital information without good reason. You’ll find no kind wizard reminding the hero that “it’s not time for you to know this yet” or some other bullshit. If somebody keeps a secret, there’s a point to it.

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This book also puts more focus on Blue’s family again. With her mother gone missing, things are out of balance in many ways. Blue’s world is naturally shaken, but Maura’s disappearance also affects the balance of magic in her household, it affects Calla and Persephone (both of which get to shine, btw). We see omen after omen of Bad Things To Come.  In addition, the Grey Man’s employer has taken it upon himself to solve the mystery surrounding Glendower, seeing as the Grey Man has switched sides. With the introduction of this new villain and his even more terrifying wife, I had plenty to keep me entertained. My nails have been bitten to shreds just thinking about where this mess will lead.

There have also been interesting developments in the Raven Boys’ friendships. Whereas Ronan and Gansey used to be inseparable, Ronan spends much more time with Adam now. Ronan being my favorite anyway, I couldn’t help but get all fuzzy and warm when he shows his kindness in the usual, gruff way, like he is unwilling to admit that he cares for people. He also reveals another secret – a big one – that makes the already complicated plot even more difficult to resolve in a clean manner. Props to the author for not making it easy for herself! But that’s how life is, right? Things don’t always add up nicely, somebody always gets hurt, and wishes just don’t come true.

This book held the perfect balance between advancing the plot, entertaining me on its own merits, and serving as a set-up for the ending. Blue Lily, Lily Blue‘s epilogue was so evil that I understand everybody who’s been screaming for the next book to come out soon. How dare you, Maggie Stiefvater, leave us on a cliffhanger like that? We can expect a lot of things to go wrong in the next and final instalment of the Raven Cycle, that much is certain. But what I’m still pondering in the back of my mind is the outcome of Gansey’s predicted death. I honestly don’t know whether we’ll face a bittersweet ending, a super sad ending or whether Blue has any chance of saving his life somehow. I’m hoping for the best, but suspect that this story will end badly for at least one character, if not more.

And now hurry up and publish The Raven King, okay?

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Maggie Stiefvater – The Dream Thieves

I want to hug Renay over and over for giving me the final nudge to start reading The Raven Cycle. The amazing, stunning, brilliant Raven Cycle! The Raven Boys was surprising in many ways. Instead of the average YA fantasy romance (love triangle optional), I got a wonderful portrait of a group of boys and a girl who are so multi-layered I didn’t know who to love best. And guess what: The sequel was even better!

dream thievesTHE DREAM THIEVES
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic, 2013
Ebook: 439 pages
Series: The Raven Cycle #2
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: A secret is a strange thing.

Now that the ley lines around Cabeswater have been woken, nothing for Ronan, Gansey, Blue, and Adam will be the same. Ronan, for one, is falling more and more deeply into his dreams, and his dreams are intruding more and more into waking life. Meanwhile, some very sinister people are looking for some of the same pieces of the Cabeswater puzzle that Gansey is after…

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If the first book belonged to Gansey, Adam, and Blue, this one is clearly Ronan’s. He may, so far, not have been the most likable Raven Boy, but he sure is the most interesting. Now it turns out he can take objects – even living ones – out of his dreams. His pet raven Chainsaw is the living example. That premise, in and of itself, would have been enough to keep me entertained, but Maggie Stiefvater doesn’t leave it at that. She threw in a few twists that made me gasp in surprise. This is not where I expected the story to go. Secrets are revealed and the group has to deal with the consequences of what they’ve done. Of what their parents have done…

Ronan is front and center of The Dream Thieves and I just loved learning more about his past, about his parents and siblings, about who he is – and why. But the other Raven Boys and Blue go through a fair share of character development themselves. Adam and Blue’s relationship, tender and strange, goes on a roller coaster ride when Blue discovers things about herself and grows up just a little bit more. Even Noah, the “smudgy one”, isn’t forgotten. These characters were already vibrant but now they are virtually glowing with life. I still can’t get enough of them. New characters are also introduced and while at first it seems they are there simply to make things more interesting (and more difficult for our protagonists), they also are well fleshed out and have a life of their own. Both Kavinsky and the Grey Man grew on me, in a strange and slightly uncomfortable way. Again, they may not be likable or even redeemable characters, but they are so damn well written!

The search for Glendower continues, of course, but just like in the first book, it’s not the focus of the novel. It may be a driving force for the characters but, honestly, I don’t much care when they find that Welsh king or if they do at all, just so long as I can spend some more time with them. Blue’s family makes a few appearances that stand in crass contrast to Ronan’s family life, for example. There is romance and heart-break, there are moments shared between siblings, there is a spectacular gesture from one Raven Boy to another that almost made me tear up. It goes to show that each Raven Boy shows affection in a different way. The scene between Noah and Blue, the numerous scenes in which Ronan reveals something about himself, that one scene between Blue and Gansey… this is where my brain refuses to spit out words and just goes into full gush mode.

dream thieves quoteThe writing continues to amaze me. I don’t believe I have ever read such a complex, thought-provoking and riveting YA novel. It explores class difference and broken families, the dynamic between a set of very different people with very different goals, and falling in love for the first time. Add to that a healthy dose of beautiful imagery and symbols and – boom – you’ve got a book that I simply can’t find fault with.

The only reason I’m not halfway through Blue Lily, Lily Blue yet is that I have to get over The Dream Thieves first. These books reverberate, they stay with you, they’re not meant for quick consumption. They are the kind of books that give you hangovers from too much emotion. And I look forward with terror in my heart to the moment I’ll have caught up with the latest book and have to wait for the next instalment to come out.

I wonder how much longer until the Hugo Awards finally add a YA section so I can throw all my votes at Maggie Stiefvater. This is a serious concern because these books totally deserve award recognition and, as we all know, YA doesn’t really do well unless it gets its own category (that’s why I love the Andre Norton award). I’ll keep my fingers crossed and read everything the woman has written until then.

RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection.

Maggie Stiefvater – The Raven Boys

The internet has been buzzing about Maggie Stiefvater ever since her Shiver Trilogy. As far as I know, it is settled somewhere in the vicinity of werewolf romance novels, which is why I haven’t felt the need to pick them up. Then came the universally praised Scorpio Races and I gave myself a nudge and bought it. However, when both Renay and Justin Landon raved about The Raven Boys, I knew there must be more to this book than just a squeeworthy teen romance. And there must be far more to Maggie Stiefvater as a writer. Spoiler: they were right.

raven boysTHE RAVEN BOYS
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic, 2012
Ebook: 468 pages
Series: The Raven Cycle #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.

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“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”

It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.
Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.
His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.
But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.
For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

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This book presents real difficulties when it comes to reviewing, mainly because of its meandering plot lines. How can one sum up such a novel? Short answer: you can’t. So let me preface this rambling review-ish thing by telling you that I loved it. It was such a pleasure to find a gem like this in between the copies of whatever is currently successful (looking at you, Hunger Games and Twilight knock-offs).

The Raven Boys is about a group of eponymous boys and a girl named Blue Sargent who has grown up in a family of psychics without having the ability to see the future herself. Blue’s talent is making the occult forces “louder” or more clear for her gifted family. Except for that one St. Mark’s Eve when she doesn’t just help her aunt see the future dead but instead sees one herself. Gansey is clearly a Raven Boy – the school crest on his expensive sweater is a dead givaway. And Blue can see him because she will be the instrument of his death, one way or another.

The story is heavily loaded with magical portents and prophecy but other than so many fantasy prophecies – one unlikely hero to save the world from evil forces and all that – Blue doesn’t react all too strongly to what has been foretold. One day, she will kill her true love. And, so it seems, she will kill Gansey. The first part she has known all her life, the second comes as a bit of a shock but, hey, what’s she going to do? Try and prevent his death, of course. But knowing how prophecies work, she’s more interested in solving the mystery and less sure that she’ll be able to change the future.

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What drew me in at first was this prohpecy, because I just like that kind of thing. I have a very soft spot for them, especially self-fulfilling prophecies (Macbeth *sigh*). But what made me stay (and immediately buy the second book) were the Raven Boys themselves. Their relationships are complex and intricate and not easily summed up in a sentence or two. What Maggie Stiefvater does in this book is draw vivid paintings of a group of young men who care deeply for each other but are, to some degree, equally codependent. You’d think the rich kids who go to a preppy private school like Aglionby wouldn’t have many problems of their own and if they did they would be petty problems. Not so the Raven Boys. Sure, they may be rich and lead an easier life than someone who has to struggle for every penny, but they are each looking for something more from life, first and foremost true bonds with other people.

Gansey had once told Adam that he was afraid most people didn’t know how to handle Ronan. What he meant by this was that he was worried that one day someone would fall on Ronan and cut themselves.

This is not at all, as some reviewers have said, a romance novel. Blue and Adam do develop a certain magnetism but this is not what the book is all about. Navigating first love is part of it, certainly, but at the heart of the novel is friendship. I was most intrigued by the question who these people really are. It’s hard to pinpoint, which is what makes each and every one of them so interesting. As a female reader, I somehow cast myself into Blue’s role and debated how I would react in certain situations. Would I run away from anyone I could fall in love with? And so deny myself the joy of true friendship? Would I help the Raven Boys on their quest for finding a mythical king, shrouded in paranormal mystery? I don’t know. What I do know is that I can’t get nearly enough of the Raven Boys and their interactions.

In that moment, Blue was a little in love with all of them.
Their magic. Their quest. Their awfulness and strangeness.
Her Raven Boys.

Another reason this book stands out from that kind of YA – you know, the kind that makes me angry at having spent money on it – is that it’s also not about the plot. What happens is interesting and helps to keep you reading but despite the mystery, and the small part of it that’s resolved in this first instalment of the Raven Cycle, personally I wouldn’t have cared if this had just been 400 pages of Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah spending time together. Whether they’re hunting for ley lines or having pizza and watching a movie really didn’t make much difference to me. Their personalities are what shines, their relationships are the real mystery. I can’t put my finger on anything with this book and that’s a huge part of its appeal. Ronan’s inexplicable anger at the entire world, Adam’s pride and desperate attempt to hide it, Gansey’s quest for keeping the group together, and Noah’s quiet observations were far more intriguing than finding a Welsh king’s grave could ever be.

The novel’s closing lines open up entire new worlds to be discovered in the sequels, making this a clear prelude to something bigger. But what is normally annoying, especially in longer fantasy series, doesn’t feel like a cop-out at all. This book needs to exist for whatever happens next to have any impact. If the story had started where The Raven Boys ends, I wouldn’t care nearly as much about the characters as I do now. It is an astounding feat by an author I unjustly dismissed so far. Here’s another lesson to all the YA-avoiders (as I still am, in part): The only reason this can be classified as YA in the first place, is that it’s protagonists are teenagers. The writing isn’t more basic than in adult novels, the relationships are just as complicated, the exploration of human emotions just as real.

I’m off to read The Dream Thieves next and whatever new mysteries await me there, I’m all in, as long as the Raven Boys are there with me.

RATING:  8/10 – Excellent

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The Raven Cycle:
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  1. The Raven Boys
  2. The Dream Thieves
  3. Blue Lily, Lily Blue
  4. TBA