Hetero-normative, but with a twist

The Henna Wars
The Henna Wars

This isn’t a review: it’s my spoiler-heavy thoughts about The Henna Wars.

The Henna Wars opens with the line, “I decided to come out to my parents at Sunny Apu’s engagement party.” The speaker is a 16-year-old, Bangladeshi Muslim girl named Nishat. What spurs this decision is the joy she sees in Sunny Apu and her fiancé’s eyes. That’s the kind of happiness she wants for herself. Hetero-normative, but with a twist.

Nishat is already out to her younger sister, Priti, with whom she has a close bond. The morning after the engagement party, Nishat sits her parents down at the kitchen table and tells them she’s a lesbian (she even looks up the Bengali word for lesbian, but promptly forgets). Her parents don’t get angry at her revelation. In fact, they say nothing at all. Later, Nishat eavesdrops on their private conversation and learns that they quietly hope that she’s simply going through a phase. They drop the subject of Nishat’s sexuality and carry on living as if nothing has changed; only they limit their interactions with their daughter. It feels a little like shunning, but it’s hard to read. One could also interpret their behavior as awkwardness.

While The Henna Wars is a contemporary YA novel about coming out, it’s also a young adult romance novel featuring a rivals-to-lover plotline. At Sunny Apu’s wedding, Nishat runs into her childhood crush, a Brazilian-Irish biracial girl named Flavia. Nishat had known her in grammar school, but then Flavia moved away with her mother after her parents divorced. She’s recently returned to the neighborhood, and as luck would have it, attends the same Catholic girl’s school as Nishat. They are both thrust into a rivalry, however, when they both choose to set up a henna tattoo business for their business class project, a competition with a thousand Euro prize.

What I really enjoyed about The Henna Wars was the main character’s voice, which was at once self-assured, self-deprecating, and wise to the world. A real feat for any teenager. We see her fieriness as she confronts Flavia on subjects like cultural appropriation and other matters of race. But there’s also a narrative cost to giving a protagonist such confidence. We never hear about her vulnerability, though the author often shows it in scenes of the character having over the top meltdowns or crying in the bathroom (but never wanting to discuss her issues). There’s one scene, when Nishat is heading home on the bus, and she’s thinking if she even has a home to return to. That scene should have been more gutting than it is.

The only major downside of the novel is that we see little of the actual henna war. We are told that Nishat makes beautiful designs, as does Flavia, who has aspirations to be an artist, but these designs are never described in the book. It’s a missed opportunity in a novel pushing the melding of tradition with modernity.

Since the novel is a romance, everything ties up neatly in the end. Flavia has a cousin named Chyna, who bullies Nishat when someone outs her at the school via an anonymous text message. This forces Flavia, who doesn’t want to have an open relationship with Nishat, to come out to her cousin. It is familial love that allows Chyna to overlook Flavia’s sexuality. In a similar way, Nishat’s parents come to accept her. This reminded me of how conservative politicians become pro-gay rights once their own child comes out of the closet. In the end, Nishat and Flavia’s queerness becomes a part of the traditional (hetero-normative and patriarchal) pattern.

This isn’t too surprising. The old rallying cry, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it,” is too radical for young adult fiction, which requires respectability above all else.

If you’ve read The Henna Wars, let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.

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.