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A Beautiful Little Fool

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Edith Wharton, Cynthia Griffin Wolff
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The Raven Boys - Maggie Stiefvater The market has been saturated recently by an influx of paranormal romances and urban fantasies. I still admit, even though I read and enjoy both, I have no idea what the difference between the two genres is despite multiple attempts on my own part of trying to figure it out. When I started reading The Raven Boys, I expected it to be paranormal romance. I hadn’t read the Shiver series by Stiefvater, but writers don’t tend to cross genres.

The Raven Boys is not a paranormal romance. I came to this realization when I found myself recommending it to my dad. Okay--”recommending” may not be the word to adequately describe how I was describing this book to him. I was on the phone with him...”imploring” him to please read this book even though (1) it is a teen book, (2) it is marketed to girls (albeit more subtly than some series), and (3) it revolves around teenage characters. The last series I “implored” him to read was the Harry Potter books. I feel that The Raven Boys--although it is nothing like Rowling’s books-- has a similar potential for cross-base appeal.

So, what is Stiefvater’s series? Well, that’s a bit harder to describe--at least in a few words--because its cross-base appeal is rooted in the hybrid concoction of genres that makes the novel so completely unique.

First, the novel is a good, old-fashioned fantasy. The kind of fantasy I am describing, however, is not high or epic fantasy (Tolkien or Martin) that shows the reader a world she could never access. Stiefvater’s world is more akin to Harry Potter or those in paranormal romance (or urban fantasy...like I said, still not sure how the two genres are different) in that the reader could stumble across Platform 9 ¾ or she could get bitten by a vampire like Simon in City of Bones. Frankly, I like those kind much better. I remember waiting for my invitation from Hogwarts. The possibility that it could be real makes this kind of fantasy more magical for me.

The Raven Boys has a strong vein of the adventure novel or the quest. This is a tradition of storytelling that Americans have always enjoyed and done exceedingly well, particularly in cinema, as evidenced by Indiana Jones and National Treasure. Stiefvater employs the trope of the quest admirably. Readers who expect nonstop action in a novel should look elsewhere, however, as Stiefvater’s investment in character development slows down the resolution of the quest. The quest is real but it is also a symbolic surrogate for the search for oneself. The finding of one’s identity is the “true” quest at the heart of the novel.

Thus, The Raven Boys is at its heart a bildungsroman or a coming-of-age novel. This is the genre in which Stiefvater’s talents as an author shine and makes the novel so absolutely memorable. One of the first things that we learn about one of the protagonists, Blue Sargeant, is that her family, a gifted group of female psychics and mediums, has foretold that if she kisses her one true love, he will die. In the deluge of teenie bopper formulaic romances that have followed in the wake of Meyer’s Twilight, Stiefvater seems to preclude all chance of Blue’s happy ending. Of course, we know that by the end of the series Blue will not end up with a dead boyfriend (at least we hope so), but Stiefvater’s plot device is something that we have not seen and it is wildly interesting! Blue is such a likable character. Her hometown of Henrietta, Virginia is the location of an elite all-boys boarding school. Blue tells herself: “Aglionby Academy was the number one reason Blue had developed her two rules: One, stay away from boys because they were trouble. And two, stay away from Aglionby boys, because they were bastards.” Her cynicism might seem out of place for a sixteen year old, but Stiefvater does such an exceptional job in showing us how Blue has built defenses in the possibility that she does kill the boy she loves.

Whenever anyone mentions coming-of-age story today, it is impossible not to mention The Catcher in the Rye. In some ways, this novel cannot help but be indebted to Salinger, but what I love about The Raven Boys is that the reader is not limited to the musings of one Holden Caulfield (that sure gets tiresome quickly). In addition to Blue, there are four boys (and another character who is just out of adolescence) who struggle with their search for identity in a world that offers them no assistance.

I am antsy and squirmy and a bunch of different words that describe bouncy and jittery to read the second installment of the series, The Dream Thieves. September is a long way away!