26 September, 2014

Blue Lily, Lily Blue: My first full ARC!

Before I start my complaining, let me say:

I adore Maggie Stiefvater's writing. I didn't love the Shiver (Wolves of Mercy Falls) trilogy when I first read it, but I think I need to give it a second chance, because her next three books, The Scorpio Races, and the first two books in The Raven Cycle (The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves) were brilliant

There is something delightful about her writing, a charm woven into the simplest sentences that makes you want to read them over, and over, and over again. (There are better examples but, off the cuff, "Tonight, the music was already loud enough to paralyze the finer parts of her personality.") Her characters are vivid, physically and emotionally - even minor characters. ("Ashley's mouth didn't make an O so much as a sideways D.) I also like that her characters seem to find humor and sarcasm even in the darkest and most dramatic moments. That's how I approach life, so it feels real even when the events are supernatural. 

The Scorpio Races is exceptional for being a perfectly contained stand-alone novel. Sure, you want there to be another two (or ten) books when you finish reading. But there aren't and there shouldn't be. The story is complete just as it is. The book is set on a remote island that seems to be part of the UK in the recent-ish past (all really perfect strategic choices) with a single magical element - the presence of quasi-mystical, dangerous water horses, who the island's inhabitants risk their lives to race every November. The narrator is a teenage girl who enters the race (usually a male-only pursuit) in order to try to keep her siblings together and save the family farm (but in a totally less cheesy and more awesome way). A second protagonist appears in the form of a young man who trains horses and frequently wins the race. The book's heart and soul is in the blossoming of their relationship (I'll come back to this in a bit**) and their relationship with their horses. The language is beautiful and the setting is extraordinarily drawn. 

On to The Raven Cycle... This series is set in rural Virginia, so the general landscape and culture is very familiar to me. When the characters joke that the fictional town, Henrietta, is Gansey's (one of the protagonists) "girlfriend", because he so loves the area, I know exactly what they mean. I used to stop in Washington on the way back to college and meet my friends who grew up there, before driving down Route 29 to Charlottesville, and I would quite literally sigh with contentment when the Blue Ridge Mountains came back into sight. I also frequently referred to them as "my mountains", separate and distinct from all the other mountains that I played on. After I showed a visitor around and he mocked them as being mere hills compared with "his" mountains (the Rockies), I told my dad about the conversation. He said, "You should have told him that your mountains are ancient creatures compared to his - his are barely out of infancy."

As with The Scorpio Races, the soul of The Raven Cycle is in the characters and their relationships, and in that sense, I think Maggie Stiefvater is unparalleled among contemporary authors. Although Blue, a teenage girl in Henrietta, is at the center of the story, there are really three other protagonists, all teenage boys attending an all-boys private school in Henrietta. The boys, led by one in particular, are obsessed with the myth of a Welsh king, Glendower, who they believe is buried under a ley line near the town, and they draw Blue, raised in a family of psychics, into their quest. All four have well-developed back stories and families, but Blue's mother and her mother's two closest friends are written with as much care (if less story time) as Blue and the three boys. 

I absolutely loved the first two books in what I thought was a trilogy, so of course, I had October 21 prominently marked on my calendar, anticipating the release of the third book, Blue Lily, Lily Blue. And then yesterday, I received my ARC!

Here is my one-line recommendation: Go buy The Raven Boys

Here is my four-line recommendation: Read it. If you like it, go buy The Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue. Read them back-to-back. Think of Blue Lily as a really, really long epilogue to The Dream Thieves. Or a long prologue for the fourth book, due out next year. I think you'll love the series and probably be less disappointed that I was.

The main problem is that much less happens in Blue Lily than in the first two books. It is a beautiful work of character development, and after I invested so much in the characters reading the first two books, I did appreciate that aspect. All four protagonists grow, push their boundaries, and discover themselves (as teenagers should), and their relationships with each other change and grow in ways that seem natural, almost elegant in their inevitability, not just in service of the plot. 

But the events are anticlimactic. Some seem uncomfortably similar to the events of The Dream Thieves, with different (new) characters serving the same essential functions, going through the same essential motions, and this makes them less heart-pounding and spine-tingling than their predecessors. Still, I'm willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt and trust that she sincerely thought she needed 416 pages to develop the protagonists to the point where they are psychologically ready to find their sleeping king - because I still think she is brilliant, and I have every confidence that she'll come through in the fourth book.

**A side note on relationships! As previously discussed, I think a kind of attraction or chemistry with characters is a crucial part of a good book, and I fully admit this kind of chemistry is as personal and unique as any real-life attraction to a new friend or lover. In my real life, I have never been attracted to people who are aggressively protective of me. I don't do well being told what to do (sometime we'll talk about how my 16-year-old self wanted to join the Navy ROTC like my dad...). In my life, there are two levels of protectiveness - how I feel toward my son, and how I feel toward the other adults that I love. I recognize that for many other people, there is a more traditional "men-protecting-women" level that they either think is key to a functioning society or simply find attractive in their own relationships. I just...don't. Beyond political or philosophical statements, the fundamental core of my being doesn't find that kind of protectiveness attractive. So I very very much value books that show relationships outside that context. (A counterexample: I loved the historical settings - and contemporary Oxford, of course - of Deborah Harkness' All Souls Trilogy, but I found the lead male character incredibly irritating.)

Maggie's books really stand out in this regard. She shows male-female relationships based on mutual respect, and she also clearly respects the importance of same-sex relationships (whether they are friendship, family/parent-child or romantic). It's also delicious to see authors who are potentially influencing young readers going beyond stereotypes and taking the opportunity to show female friendships in a positive, constructive light, and young men who sincerely care about their friends. I keep a shortlist of books I'd want to share with Finn and especially any daughters I might someday have, and these definitely make the cut.