For this installment I’m going to delve into one of my favorite genres, Young Adult! Despite the fact that I’m aging out of the target demographic for YA novels, I can’t seem to shake my affection for them—the really good ones, that is. Because, unfortunately, YA books are some of the mostly likely to perpetuate unhealthy gender stereotypes AND the most likely to reach young minds that are still very malleable.
Unlike in fantasy and science fiction, there is no shortage of teen heroines on bookshelves, but even though this seems to be a good thing, many of those heroines aren’t actually very heroic. I’ve had the same experience time and time again: I pick up a likely looking novel with a female protagonist, only to find she’s confined to very typical and limiting female roles. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Teen female main character (TFMC) is desirable to members of the opposite sex and very swiftly becomes the focus of a love triangle! Some other stuff may happen in the book, but really TFMC is just happy she overcame so much so that she can be with her true love. Hooray! Now they’ll get married and live happily ever after. Good thing she was so smart/good at fighting/special—otherwise she may never have landed such a handsome/rich husband.
Of course, there are some really good YA novels with female heroines that don’t conform to this pattern, but there are enough that do, especially in YA books that are also Sci-Fi/Fantasy, that it troubles me. I get that many teenage girls are easily drawn in by the promise of a dashing prince, but the rate at which the market perpetuates these unhelpful female narratives is alarming.
With that lengthy preamble, I’ll introduce my selection: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. I’d never heard of Stiefvater before, but when I heard lots of people singing her praises at a recent book festival I’d attended, I thought I’d give her a try.
The Raven Boys follows a few months in the lives of five teenagers: Blue, the only non-psychic in her eccentric family, Gansey, a blue-blooded but good natured boy searching for the tomb of the Welsh king Glendower, Adam, born to poverty and hardship but determined to change his lot in life, Ronan, a bad boy with a chip on his shoulder after the death of his father, and Noah, their quiet and insightful companion.
The four boys attend the local Aglionby Academy, a prestigious all-male prep school primarily for the sons of politicians and millionaires, and if there’s one thing Blue hates, it’s an Aglionby boy—their entitlement and arrogance are more than she can stand. Their paths only cross because of a mysterious occurrence in a graveyard on St. Mark’s Eve: Blue sees the spectre of boy in an Aglionby sweater. When questioned, the spirit reveals his name: Gansey. Though she’s not a psychic, her upbringing has taught Blue that a vision of a spectre on St. Mark’s Eve can only mean one thing—that the person will die within the next year. Further, the fact that she can see him at all despite her lack of supernatural ability means that he’s either Blue’s true love, or she will have a hand in his death.
Unwilling to wait around to find out if she accidentally kills someone (even if that someone is an Aglionby boy), Blue becomes determined the prevent the spectre’s death. Soon enough she becomes acquainted with the flesh-and-blood Gansey and his three friends, unintentionally becoming embroiled in their quest to wake the ley line they’re confident runs near the small town of Henrietta, Virginia and find the tomb of a lost Welsh King.
If it’s all beginning to sound a bit complicated, that’s because it is. The narrative has about a zillion different threads going at any one time, and the POV frequently changes, jumping from character to character. Though the story is most often told from Blue or Gansey’s perspective, other characters, including villains, also get a time to shine. It’s complex story building with great payoff—the book is both suspenseful and engrossing.
Further, the brief summary I’ve provided isn’t what the story is about, per se; it’s more like that’s how the story begins. Although the phrase “true love” does appear on the very first page of the book, seemingly warning the reader that they’re about to enter typical YA fantasy novel territory, the story soon morphs into a mix of history, magic, loss, and friendship that’s hard to define. Additionally, the book is exceedingly well written, full of lush language, rich detail, and beautiful, beautiful writing that I rarely encounter in any fantasy novel, let alone a YA one. Not to mention the gritty realism with which Stiefvater writes about magic and teenage life. Taboo subjects—drugs, alcohol, murder, suicide—are not shied away from. Instead, they are handled with directness and emotional sensitivity.
In short, I thought this book was amazing, and am looking forward to future installments in The Raven Cycle. My recommendation: read it! Read it now! Maggie Stiefvater is not getting as much credit as she deserves.
(Sidenote: I listened to the audiobook version, which was excellent, and apparently Stiefvater wrote the musical soundtrack for the audiobook as well. Who is this woman and why does she have all the talents?!)
The Raven Boys also provides us with a good deal of gender-related material to discuss. The book begins with Blue, and though the narrative is told from the perspective of many characters rather than just hers, I think you could still make a pretty sound argument for Blue being the “main” main character—and she’s a really, really great teen female character.
The word most commonly used to describe Blue, both by herself and others, is “sensible.” And she’s proud to be sensible. Her appearance and style is more interesting than beautiful (torn tank tops, clunky shoes, spiky hair), and she’s not afraid to speak her mind. She has consistently sharp edges, quick to snarl when anyone is rude to her, is confident in her ability to fight her own battles, and she’s fiercely proud, refusing to let any of the wealthier boys pay for her, for anything, ever. At the same time, she’s kind-hearted, smart, conniving, loyal, and brave.
The magic that Stiefvater performs in The Raven Boys is that, unlike in many YA novels, she doesn’t just state that Blue is “independent” or “different” or any of that blather – this is a female main character who actually is these things. She’s not some cardboard cutout labeled with a bunch of admirable qualities—she’s a person. The characterization is magnificent.
Blue’s family of psychics are also wonderful examples of varied, unusual, and strong female characters. Since Blue’s father disappeared right after she was born, not a single man lives in her house. Instead, it is populated by women: Maura, Blue’s mother, Neeve, her aunt, Calla and Persephone, close friends of the family, and Orla, her cousin. In many stories I’ve read with similar scenarios, the mother is pining for some lost love, unable to function without a man in her life. Not so here! The women provide financially and emotionally for themselves, and Maura is an especially rich example of a strong mother character. Who would have thought that independence and capability is something that daughters can pick up on from their mothers?! This shouldn’t be revolutionary in a YA book…but it kind of is.
And now we come to a more thorny topic: Blue is wonderful, but all of the other central characters in the novel are male. I’ve thought a lot about this in the few days since I finished the book, trying to figure out my thoughts on the subject. Over the course of reading, I came to love Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah—they’re all wonderful characters. Stiefvater performs the same characterization miracles that she does on Blue on this quartet of boys, giving them an emotional depth rarely attributed to teenage boys, their friendship layered with trust, loyalty, and resentment. But as much as I love and care about these characters, I couldn’t stop myself from asking: Did I want Blue’s friends to be girls instead?
Because, as I’ve stated before, even though there is nothing inherently wrong with a narrative that has a male main character as long as females aren’t treated as props, but as people, I still long to see read those fantasy books where a group of females is as real, as varied, as vital, as the many books I’ve read focusing on male friendships. And, if here is a book with that rare wild beast, a fully-fleshed out teenage female protagonist, and even she doesn’t have a group female friends…then is there any hope?
This isn’t a worry I can pin on Stiefvater—as an author, her job is to tell stories, and for many writers, the gender of their characters isn’t mutable. In many cases, only those characters can play out the story the author has envisioned. As a reader, I can’t disagree: I’ve already admitted that I love the male characters in this book and not only can I not imagine the story without them, I wouldn’t want to. Interestingly, during my musings I came across a blog post by Stiefvater herself, addressing issues of gender in both her writing and the books she read growing up. In this post, she brings up a lot of points that hit home for many female readers. She discusses how it feels to have all of the characters you look up to be male, of encountering the sadly lacking female representations in books and films, and muses on some of the reasons why these stereotypes continue to exist even when so many people are actively working against them:
“The thing is, girl characters mostly look different than boy characters. Even when written by women. We have hundreds of years of story-telling to tell us what a hero looks like, and what a heroine looks like, and that stuff is ingrained deep. It’s not that we don’t want to write women who are capable in the same way as men. It’s that it requires a helluva lot of imagination to overcome the weight of that narrative history. It’s one thing to write a better version of something you’re already looking at. It’s another thing to write something you haven’t ever seen before.”
“Now I’m trying to translate that back into fiction. I really want a future-Maggie to grow up with a list of fictional role-models populated by both genders. I spent so many years depressed that I’d been born into a gender I didn’t seem to belong to. I want future teen me to know that she really can be anything she wants to be . . . and see examples of it all around her.”
Maggie’s thoughts on gender mirror my own thoughts about the cast of The Raven Boys quite well: it’s not that I don’t like the boys in this book, it’s that I REALLY like the boys in this book, and I wonder why I don’t see groups of female friends getting this treatment. After all, I know from experience that friend groups of girls are just as funny, brave, loyal, dangerous, and interesting as groups of boys…so why do we get relegated to stories like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? While that novel has its own kind of merit, the group of female girls are pretty much the epitome of what all-girl narratives get to deal with in fiction: boys, periods, clothing, jealousy, and sex.
Stiefvater is right when she says that these kinds of narratives are deeply ingrained, and that it’s difficult to overcome them. There’s something just really cool about male-friendship narratives (Lord of the Rings and Dead Poet’s Society are a couple of my favorites). In a tradition dating back to Homer writing about Achilles and Patroclus, society has already imbued these types of narrative structures with a sense of importance, daring, and fun. For girls that are also important, daring, and fun, these structures hold a great deal of appeal, both for those of us that consume fiction, like me, and those of us who write it, like Maggie. At the same time, as a feminist, recognizing this pattern is troubling, and it’s discouraging to realize that inequality is ingrained so deeply even in myself.
But I hope that by acknowledging these kinds of patterns we’re taking one step in the direction of imbuing society with a new kind of narrative, one where a group of female friends is just as cool as a group of male ones, a narrative for me and for future-Maggie. Maybe if I keep wondering where the groups of female friends are, and Maggie keeps writing characters as awesome as Blue, we’ll get there someday.