The latest installment in the four book Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater has a strange title. But that is because it is a strange series. It chronicles the quest of four teenagers to locate the buried and sleeping remains of Glendower, an ancient Welsh king said to grant a favour to whosoever can find him. It is young adult paranormal fiction series with elements of history, romance, and fantasy. Already this series contains an ever growing cast of characters and an ever growing web of plots and motivations. As if that weren’t already enough, Blue Lily, Lily Blue is the follow up to The Dream Thieves, which I would consider Maggie Stiefvater’s Empire Strikes Back. There is a lot of pressure weighting on BLLB both from the scope of its own story and from a readership already expectant from the two previous novels. The good news, I am here to inform you, is that you will not be disappointed. BLLB loses no traction as it tears into the next stage of the search for Glendower. Characters, plot, and lore all continue to grow and change in preparation for the final installment. While never achieving the same level of action as The Dream Thieves, BLLB still delivers on the character development we have come to expect from Maggie Stiefvater and the scope of the magical world they are mixed up in.
Let us begin with what makes this series such an enjoyment to read: the characters. With Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah, Maggie Stiefvater has created a dynamic and unforgettable group of friends whose relationships are constantly evolving and changing. This is no less the case in BLLB. Rather than continue to drag out or play out the same confrontations and interactions as the previous two novels, the character’s relationships evolve naturally from the previous book. Some of the best moments of the novel come from seeing Blue and Gansey deal with their difficult and impossible relationship or Adam and Ronan butt heads despite being tied so closely together by their relationships with Cabeswater. The only one of the main characters who perhaps gets the least attention is Noah who is limited, primarily, to interacting with Blue in this novel. With such a huge cast it is no wonder there isn’t time for Noah to interact with everyone, but I was a little sad to not see more Ronan and Noah or Gansey and Noah interaction. While their interactions with each other are what feeds the heart of the novel, the greatest moments of character development in the novel come from the ever changing nature of the characters’ relationships to themselves. Each character struggles with something new they must come to terms with about themselves. Repeated throughout the novel is the idea that these characters know each other but don’t know each other at all. The same can be said about themselves. They are all in the process of discovering what the quest for Glendower has done to change who they are and what they want. It is fascinating to experience these discoveries alongside the characters and it was makes them stand out among a sea of often repetitive YA characters. These feel like real people with as much if not more complexity than the plot in which they thrive. Maggie Stiefvater fully admits to “stealing” real people and making them into her characters and while this may be true it is nevertheless a feat of writing that she can bring these people to life on a page with nothing but words.
While the side characters don’t experience the same level of development as the main characters they are in no way forgotten or shafted in this latest installment. Even has half a dozen new characters enter into the arena with the Raven Boys plus Blue, each side character has their own unique feel. Even characters that make the most infrequent appearances, like Blue’s cousin Orla, make the most of their time on the page. Perhaps the most disappointing character then is Greenmantle. Previously introduced as the man who hired The Gray Man to kill Ronan’s father and search for the Greywaren (Ronan) in The Dream Thieves, Greenmantle finally appears in this novel with his wife Piper as the new antagonist. And in this department I found him lacking. Barrington Whelk from The Raven Boys and especially Kavinsky from The Dream Thieves are both far superior villains to the supposedly untouchable Greenmantle. While we are told he is too powerful for even Mr. Gray to touch, he never feels frightening. His chapters are interesting because they explain his place in this story but it feels cursory and he never actually accomplishes any particularly villainous tasks during the story. I was unimpressed to the point of wishing that there had been fewer perspective chapters about Greenmantle so that there could have been more time for the main characters or for other side characters to get development. Which is strange, because with the exception of Greenmantle none of the other characters felt lacking so I couldn’t say who these extra chapters should have been dedicated to instead. Thankfully, the novel does not suffer from this lack of a strong antagonist since the characters are each struggling with their own demons, worries, interpersonal complications, and the ever complicating search for Glendower.
Maggie Stiefvater’s voice and the particular language she uses within the novel is another way in which it comes to life as you are reading it. The characters have unique voices and the way she can turn a phrase or describe a visual is incredible. It is with this firm grasp of the craft of writing that Maggie paints such a believable sense of magic into the world. From the way in which she will approach the description of a night terror or Cabeswater to the way in which her characters will talk, Maggie Stiefvater captivates you with her writing. The sense that these characters inhabit a powerful, dark, and magical world can be felt in the way she comes at these magical forces in a way I can only describe as peripherally. You feel like you are never quite looking at something like a night terror directly. You know exactly what it looks like, what it feels like, and yet the full knowledge of it is escaping your understanding. You don’t feel cheated or denied but instead feel as though this is some element of the creature itself. It defies your understanding even as the characters are forced into confrontation with it. I use the night terror here as a familiar example from The Dream Thieves but the same can be said about Cabeswater, Noah, and new elements introduced within BLLB. Then there is the natural flow and feel of the dialogue. Conversations don’t feel forced, jokes don’t feel choreographed, and certain perfectly quirky phrases will surprise you with how unorthodox but true they are. Maggie Stiefvater makes reading her words a pleasure above and beyond the images they are invoking and that is a true treat to experience. Furthermore, she has come a long way since Shiver in her romance. Blue and Gansey’s difficult but undeniable attraction continues to evolve and the author manages to make small moments feel charged and charged moments feel heavy. Then there are Ronan and Adam whose complicated relationship continues to twist around itself so that the two become more buried in each other. Of course, no relationship with Ronan is without its venom and barbs but the tender moments are enough to make up for it and remind us why Ronan is such a likeable character. But the true testament to Maggie Stiefvater’s writing skill is her ability to conjure up the full range of emotional content her plot invokes. That means where there is romance there is also dread. There are moments of this novel that are frightening and creepy and you can feel it as surely as you can feel anything in BLLB. The greatest moment of this occurs around the half-way point of the novel. I wish to avoid spoilers because this chapter is so good in how terrifying it feels and I feel it will be pretty easy to identify which chapter I am referring to. If asked to label the emotion it conjured up I would call it fear-nausea. These kinds of emotional reactions that BLLB creates are what make it such an enjoyable and memorable read.
We now arrive at plot, story, and lore. The universe of the Raven Cycle continues to expand in the third book as we learn more about Cabeswater, the Ley Lines, and Glendower. Specifically with regards to Glendower, the hauntingly repeated notion of three sleepers waiting to be woken and the closing line of the Prologue warning us “P.P.P.P.S. Don’t wake the third sleeper.” This and the knowledge that Glendower is underground along with Blue’s mother leads the protagonists into a search for a way to access cave systems along the ley line. Much like the previous two books the plot is intricate but it never feels like too much is happening. Things are allowed to percolate and developments happen suddenly but in a very precise and comprehensive way. More than anything this book feels like a set up. It feels like the calm before the storm that the final novel will no doubt be. There is no grandiose fight sequence, certainly nothing comparable to the giant fire dragon versus giant albino night terror from the end of The Dream Thieves, and perhaps it is in the best interest of the series that BLLB not try to one-up such a moment. BLLB is a novel of want and worry, fear and introspection, hidden things and dark places. It is great to see the lore of the world continue to develop and reveal that there are still new and exciting layers to uncover even as the quest approaches its end. The climactic scene is surprising if not a little unexpected, introducing some very clear repercussions for the final novel. And, in perfect form with the previous two novels, we are left with a single declarative sentence. It is not nearly as obnoxious as the final sentence of The Dream Thieves or as much of a non-sequitor as the final sentence of The Raven Boys but it is a cliché cliffhanger that works as total sequel bait at a point when we don’t need any more baiting. Overall, a finely crafted and well-paced threequel.
Admittedly, there are only one or two major plot points that occur in this novel. In between is the development of the characters giving the true substance to the story. As I previously stated, BLLB is about doubt and fear and loss. As a result, the novel can feel like a bit of a lull after the grand final moments of The Dream Thieves. This isn’t helped by the weakness of Greenmantle as an antagonist. Adam and Ronan’s plotline revolving around assisting The Gray Man in dealing with Greenmantle’s presence is good for their relationship and their development but the stakes don’t feel high. In fact, when considering that Greenmantle is going up against the Magician and the Greywaren it’s kind of hard to feel like there is ever any doubt who is going to win. The result is disturbing and illuminating development for Ronan and Adam but not anything that makes you feel like they are in danger. In fact, Greenmantle is such a weak antagonist in this novel it almost feels like calling him an antagonist is giving him too much credit. And perhaps this is what is missing from the plot of BLLB: no strong source of conflict. Noah’s abnormal behaviour is alarming but it never feels truly threatening. Instead, one might argue the antagonist of the novel is lurking on the edges and is the unnamed and mysterious third sleeper. The novel does a fantastic job of heightening the creep factor where the third sleeper is concerned but their influence over the plot is negligible at this point and they never achieve antagonistic status, whoever they are. Thus, BLLB hangs in a kind of limbo state in between The Dream Thieves and Untitled Book Four. There is plenty of character content to keep readers satisfied and the well-paced development of the plot and the lore relies on these three hundred and sixty pages to prepare us for the final book. But there is an emptiness left in the wake of a truly great antagonist like Kavinsky that is not filled by Greenmantle, Piper, or the third sleeper, the only conceivable antagonists in the story.
My final verdict is that Maggie Stiefvater delivers with Blue Lily, Lily Blue another brilliantly written installment in her Raven Cycle series even if it lacks a certain identifiable antagonistic presence to really tie it all together. The character development continues to be some of the best character development I’ve read in YA fiction or any fiction for that matter. The world continues to fascinate and the various magical elements at play never disappoint in their many faces and personalities. Maggie Stiefvater is in a class of her own when it comes to her use of the written word and for that we can be thankful. BLLB’s greatest flaw is that it feels too short, or that it lacks a certain fullness of content, so that it feels like it is a waiting game for the final book, and for that I am a little unsatisfied. It is difficult to follow up the Empire Strikes Back of any series and while BLLB flounders in some areas it flourishes astonishingly in others. Blue Lily, Lily Blue is the waiting game, the final step to reach the end of the Raven Cycle, and you’ll enjoy it from cover to cover, but you’ll hate knowing you have to wait to get to the truly good content that is a year away.
Final Verdict: 8.0 / 10