The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater, A Haunting Tale of Friendship, Family, Privilege, and the Supernatural

At the heart of Maggie Stiefvater’s latest work for young adults, The Raven Boys, lies a haunting tale that delivers so much more than a mere story of the supernatural, as Stiefvater’s fans have come to expect. This intricately woven novel explores the depths of friendship, the true meaning of family, the mystery of life after death, and the lengths some people will go to achieve the impossible.

Sixteen-year-old Blue Sargent’s clairvoyant mother and “Aunts” have warned her against falling in love for as long as she can remember. But these warnings come not from the the jaded wounds of the women’s own experiences, but from their reading of her future. Each has “seen” Blue’s fate: one day she will kill her “true love” with a kiss. The prophecy looms over the story like a mythical combination of the fruit just out of  Tantalus’s reach, and a precarious Sword of Damocles hanging overhead. With each page readers will find themselves alternately cheering for and worrying over the Raven Boys of the title, students at the prestigious Aglionby Academy, a private college-prep school of the rich, famous, and spoiled. The boys themselves, however, have something other than romance and mischief-making on their minds. Led by the charismatic, charming, and notably not stereotypical rich kid, Richard Gansey, III, the boys are hunting for the final resting place of the legendary Owen Glendower, a medieval Welsh noble, and “freedom fighter” who fought against the English occupation of his homeland. According to myths told about the knight, his body was brought to the Americas and buried where the mysterious powers of ancient Ley Lines have preserved him in a perpetual sleep. To the one who awakens him, Glendower will grant a wish.

But make no mistake, this is not a story of forbidden love and fairy tale quests. The boys of Aglionby, along with Blue, embark on a search for the sleeping knight that puts them all directly in the path of others searching for him, whose motives for awaking the knight involve dark secrets and revenge. Using the arts of a master storyteller, humor, imagination, and a keenly observed ear for the voices of young people, Stiefvater takes her readers deep into the individual psyches of her characters, revealing the painful truth of their longing, their losses, and the complexity of family dynamics, both the love and the hate. Along the way, Stiefvater leaves a trail of clues that point straight to the inevitable revelations about the boys’ friendships, lives, and one not so restful afterlife.

While the story hints at sexual tension, it barely moves beyond flirtatious glances between Blue and Adam, the Raven Boy who attends Aglionby on scholarship and works three jobs to pay  the hefty tuition. Mild incidents of “questionable” behavior include drinking, neglect of school work, and the practice of witchcraft. The two most violent scenes grow organically out of the story and involve the beating of Adam by his own father, and some gun play, that, while tense, spare the reader gory details.

The conclusion of this first volume of a series will leave you eager and anxious to return to the quest in the next volume.

Sex – 0

Violence – V

Questionable Behavior – ?

Daughter of Smoke and Bone: What would have happened if Romeo and Juliette were something other than flesh and bone.

Few books have affected me the way Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone did. Beginning with the opening lines, “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well,” this story surprised me with its inventiveness, razor-sharp insights into the ways of the heart, and truth-telling.

Despite Karou’s mysterious background and history, and the tattoos of eyes on her palms, she is, for all she knows, a normal human art student, studying in Prague. Okay so she was raised by Brimstone, a half-beast, half who-knows what else, with ram’s horns, who deals in teeth and wishes. Written in close-in third-person narration, the beauty of this story resides in its ability to keep the reader, and the protagonist guessing about Karou’s truth. Interspersed with the story of Karou, who using enigmatic magic portals to other locations on the globe, Taylor introduces a character of ethereal background, Achiva, whose sole purpose initially seems to be to thwart Karou’s errands to collect teeth for Brimstone.

With each reveal, the story becomes more and more intriguing, drawing the reader into the world of the Chimera and its battle against the Empire of “Angels.” But this story is no mere fantasy concerning forbidden love. This complex tale explores the nature of war, the process of empire, and the slippery definitions of good and evil in a world where truth seems to depend on one’s personal perspective and the vagaries of a war dependent on tightly controlled knowledge. In Taylor’s story of betrayal and redemption, hope and despair, the final, devastating passage drives a shattering wedge between Akiva and Karou’s that makes waiting for the next installment (due out November 2012) feel something akin to the torture the two deeply drawn protagonists experience themselves.

The frank discussion of passion, sex, and love make this appropriate for older YA readers, but most of the “action” takes place off screen and the love relationship at the center of the story involves a deep exploration of the joy of intimacy, trust, and the giving of oneself to another.  For your fantasy lovers, this is a must read in the vein of Kirsten Cashore’s Fire.

Sex = S
Violence = V
Questionable Behavior = ?

A Certain Slant of Light, Laura Witcomb’s supernatural exploration of the possibility of second chances and the endurance of love.

(This review is from a now defunct website I previously published, but I found myself thinking about this book recently, and thought I’d resurrect the review in order to let older readers in on this gem.)

Deliberately crafted and deliciously written, A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb offers a of sensual exploration and emotional complexity that stands out for its literary quality and grace, although who it’s intended audience is may confuse you. The story follows Helen, a spirit, or being of light, of uncertain age who spends 130 years tying herelf to the living. By doing so she is able to continue her tenuos hold on her memories and life as one of the quick. When she encounters James, another being of light who has managed to take over the body of a living boy, she is overjoyed to find someone with whom she can communicate, and begins a relationship that quickly changes her “life.” When she is seduced into inhabiting the empty shell of a human girl, the love affair that follows seems mostly about reveling in her new found body and the exploration of the senses. The two formerly light spirits commandeer the bodies of teenagers whose lives seem destined to end sooner rather than later, but the two spirits seem determined to “live” again. When James abruptly discovers the reason for his long banishment from heaven. Helen is left to struggle to uncover her own reason for exile.

Although the lives of the people whose bodies they take over seem almost too complex and dreary to believe, Whitcomb does manage to tie their tragedies into the plot by forcing the body “snatchers” to live within the complex parameters of their hosts, and in this way the story literally allows both the characters, and the reader, to live within another’s skin

Although Helen finally comes to terms with the reason for her own private hell, though stunningly painted, feels too laden with adult knowing (she has lived for over 130 years, after all) for it to have any real impact on a young reader. Although I did enjoy a cathartic cry at the grand reveal at the end, it is not likely to be read by many of the in tended audience with the same emotional impact. However, the graphic sex scenes and genuine voices of the characters will certainly keep them reading.

The stark contrast between the beautiful prose and the modern day language of the spirit’s two young hosts, if nothing else, casts an uncomplimentary spotlight on the crassness of modern culture.

Recommend this to your older, more literary-minded readers and they will thank you.

Violence – V

Sex – SS

Questionable Behavior – ?? (expect discussions of rebelliousness, parental neglect, drugs and suicide.)

Zorro, by Isabel Allende. Swashbuckling without the swagger.

Zorro, By Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s tale of the legendary defender of justice, the famed masked crusader Zorro, takes its time in the telling. In addition to following his life from birth to old age, Allende sprinkles her text with historical background, commentary about the ways of men, women and governments. While it is a story worthy of the time it takes to read, it does require a certain patience and taste to appreciate fully.

Refreshingly centered on a character who hales from a Hispanic heritage, this story meanders from the shores of Alta California, when Los Angeles was a mere pueblo, to the battlefields of Europe during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte and back again, coming full circle, as the “eye-witness” first-person narrator peers omnisciently into the minds of characters historical and fictitious. Reading the motives and thoughts of all, we are privy to the pure and impure thoughts of everyone we meet. Nevertheless, the story remains firmly grated, allowing for the steamiest of scenes to occur “off-screen” and leaving them open to the reader’s interpretation.

Although there is a lot of sword-play, and some very real discussions of the horrors of the slave trade, the mistreatment of Native populations in both the Caribbean and the American West, and war, the violence is tame.

The only disappointment rests in its failure to recount the true adventures of daring-do familiar to fans of Zorro as recounted in other popular versions of the story.

Sex = S

Violence = V

Questionable Behavior = 0