When you have a series, conceived as four separate books forming a symphony, you need a foundation. A solid centerpiece, to bind the books together. A person, a place, and event, or a quest in almost every case.
There are a ton of problems with “The Raven Cycle,” but the worst is a lack of precisely this foundation. Four books–over one thousand pages–need something to unify them, both in terms of plot and theme. Theme is easy (growing up), but plot-wise the books are a failure. I’m going to go through the possible foundations one by one to try to get at why these books left me feeling so hollow and frustrated.
- The Quest for Glendower.
This is the first unifier presented. Gansey (the protagonist-ish) is on a quest to find a Welsh king, whom he is convinced was buried in a Virginia town. He believes he was saved from death in order to bring this King back from the dead. The people he draws into his orbit are all united behind him in this quest.
But not only is the quest revealed to be futile, Glendower long dead and decayed but it never really works in the first place. Glendower is a wholly fictional figure, a great king of Wales who was apparently well-beloved, sort of Arthuresque. But at no point is the reader given any reason to care. There are no anecdotes about how glorious Glendower was. There are no compelling sketches of this man. He is an empty, two-dimensional figure. And because the reader has no reason to want him back from the dead, it is possible to invest emotionally in the quest to bring him back only by proxy, through the fierce desire of Gansey. And even Gansey has pretty much lost interest by the last book, which goes hundreds of pages without mentioning Glendower.
2. The characters.
This is what I think Stiefvater meant to be the primary unifier. The four central figures of Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Blue are the ones undergoing the thematic journey into adulthood. In Gansey and Adam’s cases, into “kingship.”
But there is something hollow about each of these characters. They are not being led to change their fundamental selves–only their attitudes towards those selves. Blue is led to come to terms with her power, Gansey with his lack of fate, Ronan with his status as dreamed and dreamer, and orphan, Adam as one who leaves his home never to return.
While this is an interesting trick of writing, it is fundamentally unsatisfying until the very end. There is something empty about each character, something that makes them seem like actors. They are resisting themselves, faking to themselves, and so they feel fake to the reader.
There is also a structural problem to the character development. Each book has a different protagonist, really: book 1’s is Adam; book 2’s is Ronan; book 3’s is Blue; book 4’s is Gansey. This results in two serious problems: not only is there not one main character to unite the four books, but there is something strange about continuing to stay with each character after their book has ended. They have done their developing, they’ve finished, but they’re still hanging around. Continuing developments are side plots, and feel awkward and out of place when inserted into other protagonist’s books.
Cabeswater is a magical forest that bends itself to the expectations and desires of those who come upon it. It is later revealed to be the form of an ancient entity, dreamed into physical presence by Ronan’s power. It’s role in the first book is brilliant, an uncanny and compelling place.
But after that, it is only adjacent to the plot. Really, it works as a glorified battery up until the final pages of the final book. The promise of the first book is never fulfilled: no one is sleeping in Cabeswater.
Fate can work as a very, very good unifier for a series of books. Half the fantasy trilogies of the ’80s and ’90s began with a prophecy. In the first book, it seemed like Steifvater was going to use fate as the solid ground on which to build her plot. She kept dropping hints like “time is a circle,” and “we reuse time,” “past and present are one.”
In that first book, promises of fate were made to the reader. We saw scenes that must not be meant to happen until the very last book. Powers far greater than anything immediately visible were glimpsed, cloaked and eerie in the shadows. Things both terrible and necessary were promised.
None of those things happened. There was no fate animating everything, no greater power or plan at work. There was just a kid dreaming strange dreams, and an ancient ley line that wanted its battery to work right again. Death was cheap, the dead returning in short order in one form or another.
I like a well-executed plot about how we make our own fate. After “The Chronicles of Prydain” did it so well, it’s hard for other writers to come up with something interesting to say about that plot, and Steifvater just fails.
Henrietta is the Virginia town that “The Raven Cycle” is set in. It includes three major locations: 300 Fox Lane, populated by psychic women; Monmouth Manufacturing, an old building purchased by Gansey where three out of five of the main characters live; Aglionby, the school which three characters attend and one attended before dying.
On paper, the town would make a good foundation. But in execution, the locations never intersect with each other, not really. Everyone comes to Fox Lane, but only Blue every goes to Monmouth Manufacturing. The three never unite, and they could be in three different towns spread out over Virginia just as easily. Aglionby is cliched and unremarkable. 300 Fox Way is excellent for the first three books, then gets boring and predictable by the final book.
Of the climactic events in the four books, only one takes place in the town, and that one in an anonymous parking lot. There is no sense of the town as having a personality of its own, although Gansey loves it enough to build a model of it in his house. But just because Gansey cares about something is not enough to make the reader care.
This is, in the end, the fundamental problem of “The Raven Cycle.” I’ll be talking in two other posts about all the other problems, but they are really just nit-picking compared to this: you must have something to ground a story spread so large and long as this one. Without it, everything feels flimsy and fragile, and difficult if not impossible to invest in and care about.