As you’ll know if you spend any time in bookish internet communities (or just read my blog), The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater came out this week. Mine, despite having been pre-ordered, didn’t come until the day after release day, but I’m counting myself lucky compared to some folks in the US where Amazon sold out and couldn’t ship even the pre-orders — how does that happen?
Once the book arrived, I spent a bit of time admiring the cover, grouching about how it had been damaged in the post (I’m not that impressed by Seven Stories on this occasion — they should have packed it better), and then started reading. Well. I got distracted by the typo on the first page (the Also By Maggie Stiefvater page, which is seriously unacceptable — you don’t even need to speak English to be able to look at her previous books and notice that’s called Forever not For ever), but then I started reading.
This isn’t a review of The Raven King, for a couple of reasons — the first being that I don’t review books here, just on my other blog, and the second being that I don’t yet know how to review it without spoiling the end for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, so I’m waiting until I can manage that to actually write a review.
Instead, this as a series of thoughts about the weight of expectations that I had for this book, even though I was trying not to let them get to me. The problem with a highly-anticipated book is that it’s incredibly hard for it to live up to whatever you’ve built up in your mind, whether because you’ve got your own ideas of how it should end, or just because you expect it to be a pinnacle of perfection. So that even if you really, really like something, you’ll always be wondering why you didn’t love it, and whether you should have done.
I had two sets of expectations for The Raven King.
Maggie Stiefvater Expectations
It’s funny to come online and see ten gazillion tweets and Tumblr posts and Goodreads updates about The Raven King, because frankly, I’m a bit of a Maggie Stiefvater hipster. I first encountered her books by chance in Foyles in 2009, when the only edition of Lament they had was an imported US edition because it hadn’t been published in the UK yet. I’ve told that story before on this blog so I’m not going to go into it now, but basically, when I fell in love with Maggie’s writing I felt like the only one.
I wasn’t, and I knew that, but it didn’t change how it felt. The Wolves of Mercy Falls books were bestsellers, and when I went to a signing at the same Foyles where I’d originally bought the books, in late 2011, the room was nearly full and the line was pretty long. Probably a quarter of the length it would be now, but it was still long. Yet although I went with three friends (well, two friends and one of the friends’ boyfriends; I didn’t really know him at the time), none of them would have discovered Maggie’s work if I hadn’t shown it to them.
Because that was the thing. I didn’t know anyone else who’d read her books who hadn’t read them because I told them to, and even a couple of years after that it was amazing to run into people who knew who I was talking about without me having to explain. Other people had read the books, but not people I knew.
This meant that for a long time, despite being increasingly well-known, Maggie’s work felt like something that was mine. Her early books, Lament and Ballad, spoke to me on a personal level, and they came at a time in my life when they were perfectly poised to influence me. It was all about me.
Over the six and a half years since I first picked up Lament, Maggie’s books have continued to speak to me, some of them more than others. But it means I expect a level of personal connection from them that perhaps I don’t from books that were famous before I encountered them, or by authors I didn’t read at precisely the right time in my life.
The Raven Cycle Expectations
I also had expectations specific to The Raven Cycle, although they’re closely linked with the expectations above. Firstly, Maggie had set up a lot of plot points, so obviously I needed to know how those resolved — a series finale always has to achieve a lot more than just another installment, and I was desperate for it to be a satisfying conclusion. But it also had to live up to The Dream Thieves.
The Dream Thieves is the second book in the Raven Cycle and that, too, I read at precisely the right time in my life. I read it at a point when my mental illness was just beginning to really get to me, when I was afraid of my own mind, when I didn’t know who I was and had a thousand questions I couldn’t answer — and Ronan’s journey in the book may well have saved my life. It was the start of year thirteen at school, I was also reading The Dream Life of Sukhanov (dreams were a key point in 2013, apparently), and I needed that book in a way I hadn’t even realised until I read it. I actually made a video about it here. While dressed as Grantaire. As you do. If you watch that, please excuse how awkward and inarticulate my seventeen-year-old self was.
I thought maybe the fact that The Dream Thieves had reached me at precisely that moment had made me biased about it, and that it perhaps wasn’t better than the others in the series, but when I reread all three recently, I had to say that again it was my favourite. When I read Blue Lily Lily Blue, I liked it as a book but as a sequel to The Dream Thieves, it couldn’t quite compare.
I think The Dream Thieves has for me the perfect balance of the everyday and the otherworldly; it’s got teenage characters who feel real as well as magic that feels entirely alien to our world. For what I was looking for in a book and in the series, it hit all the spots. Maybe other readers were looking for something else. But that book was for me everything I was looking for.
And so The Raven King had a lot to live up to. As I said about Blue Lily Lily Blue, it’s impossible for me to evaluate it as a book in its own right. I can’t even really evaluate it as a conclusion to a series, although I’m going to try when I eventually write my review. However amazing it was, however fantastically written or well-plotted, it would always have to compare to a book that reached me exactly when I needed it and helped me in a way nothing else could.
I liked the book. I liked it a lot. I want to reread the ending before I write a review, or maybe the whole book (a bit slower this time, now that I’m not desperately trying to avoid hearing spoilers before I get to the end), but I liked it. Last night, though, I had to sit and think for a long time about why I didn’t love it, and it came down to a simple matter of expectations versus reality.
It’s going to be very, very hard for Maggie Stiefvater to write something that does as much for me as The Dream Thieves, or feels as much like it’s mine as Ballad does, and I know that. I also know that I need to let go of wanting that, and I have no idea how.