The Raven Boys: an Analysis of YA Fantasy

The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle, #1)

The goal of this blog series is to explore YA fantasy. My plan is to read ten books in the genre and study how they were constructed along thematic lines. Also, I want to determine if they meet genre expectations as outlined here by author March McCarron.

Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys is the second book in this series. Though I finished reading the novel in late September, I’ve been putting off writing about it. A major reason for this is that I just can’t figure out what the book is about.

Thinking back, the lack of discernible themes may be a function of a novel holding its mysteries too close to its chest. The Raven Boys is, after all, part one of a quartet. This means I have to consider all the plot elements and see if I can decipher anything from the book’s arrangement. Warning: spoilers abound.

Novel Setup

The Raven Boys takes place in the small town of Henrietta, Virginia. We’re first introduced to a girl named Blue Sargent, who comes from a family of clairvoyants. A prophecy is made early on in her life that states she will kill her true love with a kiss. Because of this, her mother, Maura Sargent, keeps close tabs on who Blue associates with. In a way, Maura is like the mother figure in a Heroine’s Journey. She hinders her daughter from freely experiencing life and adventure.

Though members of Blue’s family can foresee the future, Blue herself has no such paranormal abilities. She does, however, have one gift, and that is the ability to enhance other people’s magical powers. This is why her mother takes her to a church every Saint Mark’s Eve, when the ghosts of those who will soon die manifest themselves. It is during one of these vigils that Blue has her first paranormal experience. The spirit of a boy calls her name before walking away. Her Aunt Neeve Mullen tells her that the ghost belongs either to Blue’s true love or to someone she murdered. Because of the prophecy hanging over Blue, both can be true.

The other major characters in the novel are the raven boys themselves, all of whom attend a prestigious private school called Aglionby Academy. There are four of them: Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah. While Gansey and Ronan are rich- it’s noted the Gansey is old money- Adam attends Aglionby as a scholarship boy. As for Noah, for much of the book, he remains a cypher.

The raven boys’ story revolves around a quest to find the legendary Welsh King Owen Glendower, a sort-of sleeping barrow king who will grant a wish to anyone who wakes him. Mostly, the quest is Gansey’s and Adam’s passion project. Both desperately seek the sleeping King, but for different reasons. Gansey believes that his search for the King will give meaning to his otherwise un-travailed existence. Adam’s goals are a little less pure. Like the scholarship boy that he is, he seeks an escape from his current life of poverty and parental abuse. He seeks material gain.

The two story threads come together when Blue learns that the ghost she encountered on St. Mark’s Eve belongs to Gansey. She slowly becomes one of the raven boys and joins them on their expedition to find the ley line- the corpse road, as it is called- which will lead them to Glendower. Though Blue has a bias against entitled Aglionby students, she soon warms to them, especially Adam and Gansey. She feels an attraction for Adam and a powerful pull towards Gansey, who might be her true love. This love triangle is the third thread in the novel.

Doubling of the love triangle and the quest

The fourth thread is the mystery behind Blue’s parentage. We learn that Blue’s father originated from the ley line, a magical path that amplifies magic, which explains the origins of Blue’s own gift. In a sense, Blue is a walking-talking ley line. Thus, the love triangle reflects the quest for the ley line itself. Like the female character in early Trollope novels, Blue almost exists a prize. Who will she give herself to- a man pure of heart or a man after material things?

The fifth thread in the novel is a mystery. As the raven boys search the ley line, they find a skeleton which belongs to Noah, meaning Noah is a ghost. We learn he attended Aglionby seven years before the other boys, and that his best friend, Barrington Whelk, another seeker of Glendower, murdered him in a failed ritual sacrifice. Thus, Barrington Whelk and Noah mirror Gansey and Adam, and for an exciting second, I thought The Raven Boys was going to enter David Lynch territory, with its dreamy world and character obverses. Who knows? Maybe that’s what the book is going for.

Doubling of Gansey, Whelk, Adam, and Noah?

Too many competing plot threads

The Raven Boys thus has five plot threads, but which is the novel’s through line? Let’s look at the book’s major plot points.

Plot point 1: The inciting incident of the novel is the church scene on St. Mark’s Eve. Blue meets Gansey’s ghost, which means he is (1) either her true love and will die soon, (2) she will murder him, or (3) she will do both. This sets the novel rolling, putting Gansey and Blue in each other’s paths. Thus, plot point one belongs to the love triangle and main quest plot.

Plot point 2: The Raven boys and girl take a helicopter ride and find the ley line. This is a strange, dreamy place where time and space are altered. This is a part of the Quest plot.

Plot point 3: Gansey and Blue discover Noah’s bones. This is the mystery plot.

Plot point 4: The Raven crew goes after Barrington Whelk to stop him from finding Glendower. This is the conclusion of the mystery plot.

For me, there is a disconnect between the mystery plot and the first half of the book, which explains why the book bored me. On the other hand, you can see how Stiefvater uses of shifting plots to keep all the mysteries intact. Indeed, a reader on Goodreads said that while they reread the series, they found so many “Easter eggs” littered throughout the text. I’ll never know because I won’t be reading the rest of the books. A shame really because The Raven Boys has all the things I like in paranormal urban fantasy.

Genre Expectations

YA fantasy is a genre I’m not too familiar with, but I’ve blogged about it before (here and here). Most of what I know comes from March McCarron’s blog post on the subject, which delineates some hallmarks of the genre. As a writer, I thought it would be fun to see if The Raven Boys conforms to genre expectations.

1.) be character driven rather than plot driven.

The Raven Boys is character driven. Blue’s and the boys’ relationships to each other takes up a lot of the narrative. For me, these explorations of character were mostly one note, especially as far as the boys are concerned. Gansey’s character tends towards largess (the pure of heart theme), Adam is always poor, Ronan is always doing his girl-interrupted act, and Noah is just there. These character aspects are just on repeat for most of the book. We do, however, get a sense of their loyalty to one another at points.

2.)  be set in a world that is only as big as it needs to be.

The Raven Boys is a semi-portal story. And while the world of the ley line feels like the world of dreams, it isn’t explored much in this book. So, the fantasy world is small. Really small. Even the real world is small. After reading the book, all I know about Henrietta, Virginia is that it is full of trees and has a pizza joint.

3.) be fast paced

This book is the opposite of fast paced.

4.)  ease you in

We don’t need too much easing into the story since it takes place in the regular world.

5.) make you feel SO many EMOTIONS!!!

The characters are too one note and mysterious. I didn’t feel any of their emotions.

6.) be more focused on inter-character drama.

There is drama between Adam and Gansey since Gansey want to help Adam monetarily, but Adam doesn’t want to be a charity case. Gansey also mothers Ronan while he is going through his punching the walls moments. Ronan resists Gansey as well. In all, most of the drama is about showing what a great guy Gansey is (pure of heart).

7.) feature dramatic character growth.

Definitely does not. Once again, the characters are too one note for this.

8.) be anachronistic.

Not applicable, since the novel is a semi-portal story.

9.) have some unexpected twists.

Noah being dead is the only twist (an unsurprising one).

10.) have pretty covers.

The cover is just okay. Some of the fan art I’ve seen is cooler.

Final score: The Raven Boys has 4 out of 10 hallmarks of YA fantasy.

The Hazel Wood: an Analysis of YA Fantasy

Screenshot of Goodreads page

What is The Hazel Wood? It’s not an adventure story- not much of one, anyway. It’s a fairy tale story about STORY; a novel that starts with the trappings of a portal story, but one that becomes literary towards the end and maybe even postmodern.

The novel centers on a book called Tales of the Hinterland, a Necronomicon of sorts, which serves as evidence of a world beyond the physical one we inhabit (see note 1). Though the stories are fairy tales, two different characters in the novel note how the writing feels beyond real, and more like war reportage (see note 2). By this, they mean that the stories are unvarnished tales of trauma. They feature cruelty, anger, and a desire for revenge. What’s left unspoken is the possibility that all stories are born of trauma, and that stories serve as an unhealthy, circular script for our lives.

That’s profound stuff.

The central question of the novel is can we escape story or does trauma dictate destiny? The writer, Melissa Albert, tells the tale through two teenagers, a young woman named Alice Crewe (Alice Proserpine) and a boy named Ellery Finch. One is white, and one is mixed race. Both take comfort in stories as an escape. For Alice, her trauma is submerged in her memory. Ellery Finch’s trauma is submerged in the narrative. We get hints and clues about it, but nothing definite. He cheerfully hides his pain.

After Alice’s mother is kidnapped by characters from Tales of the Hinterland, the two teenagers try to recover her by journeying to the mythical Hinterland. After that, the book becomes dreamlike, which makes sense. Trauma means dream.

YA fantasy is a genre I’m not too familiar with, but I’ve blogged about it before (here and here). Most of what I know comes from March McCarron’s blog post on the subject, which delineates some hallmarks of the genre. As a writer, I thought it would be fun to see if The Hazel Wood conforms to genre expectations.

1.) be character driven rather than plot driven.

The Hazel Wood is character driven. As noted above, the story is about trauma. The trouble is that the trauma/ character backstory remains vague. Honestly, I think the book suffers because of this, and a part of me thinks that the novel would have been more enjoyable if it were told from Ellery’s point of view.

2.)  be set in a world that is only as big as it needs to be.

The Hazel Wood is a portal story, and as such, features a secondary world. Here, it’s the writing that lets the story down. What should have been a world full of wonder is rendered with as little description as possible. A writer can get away with this, if the descriptions are impactful, i.e., highlight a novel’s theme. The Hazel Wood relies more on a “look how weird everything is” approach. So, while the world feels small and undeveloped, it’s not nearly as big as it needs to be.

3.) be fast paced

The book is fast paced for the most part. It’s also digressive. Two fairy tale stories inserted in the novel stop the narrative in its tracks. These fairy tales are the best part of the book, though.

4.)  ease you in

We don’t need too much easing into the story since it takes place in the regular world. The beginning of the novel is just the Alice Crewe character’s life before the inciting incident (it reminded me of the Gilmore Girls). The reader is more than prepared for the secondary portal world since it runs on fairy tale logic (no rhyme or reason for anything).

5.) make you feel SO many EMOTIONS!!!

The characters are cyphers, so you don’t feel their emotions so much as observe them.

6.) be more focused on inter-character drama.

There isn’t much drama between Ellery and Alice, just a connection.

7.) feature dramatic character growth.

Spoiler. Alice grows at the end of the novel. She breaks out of her story, but as the writing at this point of the novel is in wrap-up mode, you don’t experience her growth in a satisfying way (see note 3). This was a strange choice on Albert’s part, since Alice’s breaking free from her story is the heart of the novel. At least, it should have been.

8.) be anachronistic.

Not applicable, since the novel is a portal story.

9.) have some unexpected twists.

The book has a lot of twists. Nothing in the novel is as it seems. Some of the twists, however, jarred me out of the story.

10.) have pretty covers.


Final score: The Hazel Wood has 8 out of 10 hallmarks of YA fantasy.

Note 1: The novel has at least one homage to Lovecraft.

Note 2: The novel contains two fairy tales, a whole one and a fragment. Both read like traditional fairy tales and not like war reportage at all.

Note 3: It’s interesting that while Alice escapes her story, Ellery chooses to remain within his. The reasons for this are hard to fathom, mostly because the trauma’s in Ellery’s life are so vague. There’s a whiff of tragic mulatto about his choice, which is sad to see. I hope the second book is about him finding a way back.

Do YA Novels Require a High Concept Premise?

Yesterday, I watched Part 2 to Diane Callahan’s three-part series on writing better YA fantasy (posted here on her YouTube channel). In the video, she claims that YA fantasies have vivid world building, strong narrative voices, and high concept premises. As that’s a lot to unpack, I decided this post will only deal with her assertion that YA fantasy novels have high concept premises.

So, what exactly is a high concept premise? According to Callahan, high concept premises are story premises that have (1) mass appeal, (2) dramatic stakes, (3) familiar elements that can be visualized, and (4) a twist on a familiar trope. The last three elements can be forged into a single, one-line statement, which in effect would constitute the premise of the novel. Callahan then presents us with five such examples of high concept fiction to illustrate what she means:

  • The Lightning Thief, the first Percy Jackson book: “A boy with dyslexia and ADHD learns he’s the son of Poseidon and must find Zeus’ stolen thunderbolt to prevent war between gods.”
  • Six of Crows: “Six criminals carry out a heist to steal an imprisoned scientist from a heavily guarded fortress.”
  • These Broken Stars: “A luxury spaceliner crashes on a deserted island. The sole survivors are the daughter of the richest man in the universe and a young war hero. They must work together to cross the wild terrain in search of rescue.”
  • One of Us Is Lying: “Five high school students walk into detention, and only four walk out alive. All of them have secrets they are trying to hide, and all are murder suspects.”
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: “A girl keeps a box of unsent love letters to her crushes, but when someone mails her letters, all those crushes confront her about her feelings for them.”

A strange thing about Callahan’s analysis is how almost all the examples, with the exception of Six of Crows, fall outside the subgenre YA fantasy. One is middle grade, one is science fiction, one is a mystery, and the last is a contemporary romance. This left me scratching my head, and I still don’t know why she choose to illustrate her point in this way. But even if I set that aside, I think there is an even bigger problem- namely, that only two of the five novels she discusses actually seem high concept. Sadly, Callahan doesn’t explain just what makes these novels high concept- not even by her own odd definition of the term.

So let me try.

It’s easy to see how Percy Jackson (in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief) finding out he’s a demigod is a fun premise. Not only does the character learn he’s special, he also enters the fantastic if familiar world of Greek Myth. That said, I wondered if the premise was all that different from, Harry, you’re a wizard? If a high concept is a part of a publishing trend, at what point does a high concept premise cease to be high concept premise? Shouldn’t uniqueness count for something? And does uniqueness really matter if the premise’s appeal to a mass audience is so obvious?

Of the remaining examples, the only other book that seems high concept is One of Us Is Lying. Sure, on the surface it’s just a lock-room mystery, but I immediately started wondering how a kid in after school detention could commit a murder, especially if there are three other witnesses present (Blackmail?). You can even observe a twist on a familiar theme: The Breakfast Club meets Agatha Christie. It’s not quite high concept, but close?

By contrast, the other three books seem run-of-the-mill. The premise of These Broken Stars seems like an 80s spoiled rich girl/ scrappy young man bickering lovers romance movie I’ve seen a million times. Whether or not the book is like that, I have no idea. All I can say is “Let the Schwartz be with you!”

Then there is Six of Crows, which, by its premise, seems like a typical team mission story. Based on the bland description Callahan gives, I can’t see what makes this particular premise high concept. A similar novel, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, is also a heist fantasy novel. Its high concept premise, however, lies in its world building as the story is set in a secondary world in which the fantasy big bad, someone like Sauron in Lord of the Rings, has won and the good guys have lost. Thus, Mistborn has a trope twist and a familiar (genre) element.

Finally, there is Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The novel’s use of a gimmick as framing structure for the book does make it interesting. It may be cliché too- I wouldn’t know since I’m not widely read when it comes to romance. That said, I immediately thought of Nicholas Sparks’ romance novel Message in a Bottle, which, while different, is similar in that it also uses a letter as a plot device. Thus, there is a familiar (genre) element in Jenny Han’s book, but is there a major trope twist?

Interestingly, when I consider which books felt high concept to me, I realized that the two I choose simply reflected my own reading biases. When I was a kid, I did nothing but read and re-read and then read again books of Greek and Norse myth. Even dry stuff like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (I still own my yellowed copy). If the Percy Jackson books had been around when I was a middle grade student, I’m sure I’d have read them to death. Similarly, One of Us Is Lying’s appeal stems from my love of mystery and crime fiction.

I wondered then if the other three books are in fact also high concept, and if I just don’t get their appeal. It’s still an open question. All I can conclude is that there is nothing that will appeal to everyone. Furthermore, it’s difficult to see how any of the discussed books transcend genre. I can’t imagine science fiction readers rushing out to read These Broken Stars just on the premise alone. If the book is executed well- the romance is subordinated to the science fiction element- I can imagine word of mouth bringing it to a science fiction audience’s attention- that is if it’s a good science fiction novel. Otherwise, it just comes off as romance in a space setting. After reading reviews on Goodreads, my impression is that this is very much the case.

The final thing I gleaned from this exercise is that much of what people deem “high concept” is not all that unique. In fact, all five books have literary or film antecedents. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jane Smiley in her wonderful book, Thirteen Ways at Looking at the Novel, observes that writers are continually influencing each other, not only across time but across oceans and cultures. Premises move from place to place, mind to mind, and they alter. I think writers interested in creating works of YA fantasies shouldn’t agonize if their books are not high concept- which requires books be premise driven, suited for a wide audience, unique, and immediately intriguing (see here). A high bar indeed! So, let go of such anxieties as books that truly fit that criteria are rare.

While a real high concept premise will get you noticed by agents, so will books that twist familiar genre specific tropes (most of which will have little interest to a general audience). And dramatic stakes will always be welcomed by readers- dramatic stakes seem to occur naturally whenever a book is written! And lovers of genre will always adore familiar elements. Indeed, the smartest thing a budding YA writer can do is read popular adult fiction and think, how can I twist this established premise so that it centers teenagers and their lives. After that, everything else will just come.

The Most Lucrative YA Genre

Screenshot of the August 4th Goodreads Newsletter

This morning, I received an email promising a list of “The 40 Most Popular ‘New’ Young Adult Classics.” How can a classic be new, I wondered? A classic book by definition is old. We’re told they are classic because they stand the test of time. For me, a true classic is an old book people want to read; one they approach on their own, unassigned. Pride and Prejudice comes to mind, as does Jane Eyre. But my favorite definition of a classic comes from Mark Twain: “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” His notion of a classic book is probably closer to the truth.

I wondered what this list of new classics would look like. Would the article be a speculative? I clicked on the link and found that the actual article has a more sober title: “The 40 Most Popular Recent Young Adult Novels.” The person in charge of creating the email newsletter must have altered the title to make it look flashier. More clickbaity.

Nonetheless, it was interesting to study a list of the most popular YA books of the last three years. To generate this list, the compiler quantified a book’s popularity using the number of reviews a book has on Goodreads and then culling any books with low average star ratings, which in this list was anything below 3.5 stars. Though I rarely read YA, I was familiar with many of the titles just from watching Booktube, and it was interesting to see which hyped book had made it and which had not. (Where is Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing; 57,046 ratings/ 4.02 star rating.)

The wild success of Angie Thomas’ novel The Hate U Give

For fun, I graphed the total number of star ratings against the book’s rank on the original list. You can see that after the second-ranked book, there is a precipitous decline in the number of reviews, suggesting that the popularity of the number 1 and 2 ranked books (The Hate U Give and Turtles All the Way Down, respectively) is of a different magnitude. Interestingly, both books are contemporary YA novels.

Fantasy is the most successful YA genre

Then I looked at genre. While contemporary novels might have runaway successes, the vast majority of the books on the list are YA fantasy novels (42.5%) with contemporaries coming in at a distant second (27.5%). It was interesting to note how diverse the contemporary novels were. Many of the books feature LGBTQ+ story lines or are about racial minorities. By contrast, YA fantasy novels seemed less diverse. From looking at this data set (which I suspect is inaccurate), one can conclude that (1) a writer trying to break into the YA writing market is best-off writing fantasy, and (2) a minority writer has the best chance of being published if they write contemporaries.

Below is the full list, including publication year, average star rating, genre, total number of star ratings, and total number of written reviews on the Goodreads website. The information was collected on August 5, 2020.

RankTitleDate StarGenreRatingsReviews
1The Hate U Give20174.52Contemporary470,67456,519
2Turtles All the Way Down20173.96Contemporary299,03033,508
3One of Us Is Lying20174.05Mystery194,37324,918
4The Cruel Prince20184.14Fantasy190,37526,315
5Always and Forever Lara Jean20174.14Romance139,44016,431
7Children of Blood and Bone20184.13Fantasy138,56022,632
8King’s Cage20174Fantasy118,90911,135
9Kingdom of Ash20184.59Fantasy120,71315,049
10Lord of Shadows20174.49Fantasy89,83512,197
11The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue20174.11Historical Fiction85,22115,522
12They Both Die at the End20174.12Contemporary85,81415,360
13Warcross20174.17Science Fiction73,88513,507
14La Belle Sauvage20174.16Fantasy73,3347,564
15Five Feet Apart20184.18Romance74,4779,514
16Thunderhead20184.48Science Fiction67,57711,273
17Carve the Mark20173.78Fantasy58,8107,360
18What If It’s Us20183.92Romance60,17610,576
19The Upside of Unrequited20173.96Contemporary57,8869,321
20On the Come Up20194.3Contemporary58,8118,921
23The Hazel Wood20183.58Fantasy55,87710,164
24The Ballas of Songbirds and Snakes20203.84Science Fiction109,33116,911
25Leah on the Offbeat20183.88Contemporary53,4709,098
26The Poet X20184.43Contemporary54,18311,093
27Long Way Down20174.32Contemporary51,91010,271
28Eliza and Her Monsters20174.22Contemporary44,5719,427
29Wayward Son20194.05Fantasy46,8817,935
30To Kill a Kingdom20183.93Fantasy45,5788,771
31A Curse So Dark and Lonely20194.16Fantasy47,0689,468
32We Are Okay20173.96Contemporary44,4557,504
33Truly, Devious20184.03Mystery45,0778,435
34Serpent and Dove20194.13Fantasy48,2339,423
35When Dimple Met Rishi20173.71Romance41,6849,083
36Two Can Keep a Secret20193.98Mystery43,3876,459
37King of Scars20194.21Fantasy40,2247,871
38Sorcery of Thorns20194.11Fantasy38,5497,825
39History Is All You Left Me20174.05Contemporary34,2326,145
40Flame in the Mist20173.89Fantasy33,4765,555

You can look at the list here.