The Raven Cycle, by Maggie Stiefvater, is a strange series. Technically, it’s about a hunt for an old Welsh king, but I think cars are described in more detail than the hunt itself. Technically, the characters are on a quest, but they spend more time street racing or working than searching. Technically, there’s romance, but the friendship struggles take up far more pages. Through these technicalities, Maggie Stiefvater captures real life on the pages of a fantasy series.
Real life is often off-focus. How would you describe yourself? I consider myself a writer. But I spend a good portion of my time doing school, goofing off, or working. When I hang out with friends, I talk about superheros more than I talk about writing. And I have a love for mountain biking that doesn’t fit with my writing/geek status. People are more than can be summed up in a paragraph of introduction.
Maggie Stiefvater captures this off-focus reality of life in three ways (all art below is hers).
She’s just as great at writing atmosphere as she is in All the Crooked Saints. I won’t just repeat that post, but Stiefvater emphasizes wording, focuses on feeling over plot, and immerses you in the setting in The Raven Cycle just as well as in All the Crooked Saints.
2. Multiple Magic Systems
There’s the house of psychics and Blue’s mirror abilities, there’s the ley lines and the Glendower quest, there’s Ronan’s dream thief ability, there’s the magical artifact hunters… All of these could belong to a series by themselves.
Having all of these magic systems in one story is disorienting at first. It’s hard to understand what the ‘rules’ to a system are when there are different rules and boundaries for each one. But it’s also realistic- if magic was a factor in life, there’d probably be more than one type of magic.
These multiple magic systems give the books an off-focus feel and the suspicion that life is more complex than one would expect. This captures real life realizations, and makes The Raven Cycle feel more realistic because of the additional magic.
3. Amazing Characters
I knew I loved Blue from the moment The Raven Boys said,
The top edges of her fingerless gloves were fraying; she’d done a bad job of knitting them last year, but they had a certain trashy chic to them. If she hadn’t been so vain, Blue could’ve worn the boring but functional gloves she’d been given for Christmas. But she was vain, so instead she had her fraying fingerless gloves, infinitely cooler though also colder…
It’s a small detail, but it’s relatable and usually not written down. It immediatly shows a few things about Blue: she makes her own clothes, she cares about how she looks, and her style is ‘trashy chic.’ It’s the details that make characters lifelike.
It feels like the characters exist outside of the story. What’s Adam doing now? Probably working or napping (poor kid). What’s Blue doing? She’s probably attacking a tee shirt with scissors. What’s Ronan doing? Either petting a cute animal or getting arrested for fighting. They all have lives that don’t directly relate to the plot, which makes them feel so much more real.
There are two types of ways to say a book isn’t for everyone. The first way is condescending. “It’s not for everyone” really means “it’s too complex for some people to understand.” I try to avoid that usage (it’s an ongoing struggle).
The second way to say “It’s not for everyone” just means “not everyone will connect with this book.” While there is a certain complexity to it that’s easy to miss, The Raven Cycle is strongly in the second camp, for the very reasons I just praised it.
Not everyone wants to read a book that wanders through people’s lives. They may rather read a story for what happens. They may not want to juggle multiple magic systems, or read about non-plot-related character activities.
And so this review/writing tip comes with a warning: if you try to write like this, your book won’t be for everyone. It might not even be for yourself, if you don’t connect to this type of story. So make sure you know what you want out of your story when following this advice (or any advice, for that matter). You can choose how much of this to incorporate, if any.
Very few books will benefit from writing in a similar style to The Raven Cycle. But if your book is one of them, I hope to read it one day, because this type of book is definitely for me.
Have you read The Raven Cycle? What did you think of it?