The Raven Cycle: A Fangirl’s Love Letter

“Gansey looked up to them, and she saw in his face that he loved this place. His bald expression held something new: not the raw delight of finding the ley line or the sly pleasure of teasing Blue. She recognized the strange happiness that came from loving something without knowing why you did, the strange happiness that was sometimes so big that it felt like sadness. It was the way she felt when she looked at the stars.” –From The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

There have been books that have utterly shook me, searing themselves into my soul, and I didn’t shrink from the screaming heat of the branding iron. Harry Potter was the first–really the only–series I fangirled over. I read the first book sometime in my early teens. I shared a room with my two sisters, my bed a solitary twin that laid perpendicular to their bunk beds, so I think I was in eighth grade. I can remember the exact moment, laying back on my bunched up blankets and pillows, holding The Sorcerer’s Stone, that I fell in.  

My love for that series was swift and lasting. As each book came out, it became ingrained even deeper in my thoughts, who I was becoming. I have not read a series until now that has transfixed me so completely. The plots over all seven books are certainly intricate. But more than that, it was this orphaned outcast I loved so much, and his aggregate of emotions upon entering a world it seemed had been designed just for him (and designed just to destroy him!) for how much it feels like home.

After that, there were other, standalone novels that moved me to that same degree. The Catcher in the Rye, because well, Holden Caulfield is my spirit animal. Jane Eyre and later Villette for their lonely, harrowing, emotional, full protagonists. Years and years after Harry Potter, The Fountainhead nearly killed me. Again, it was a solitary outcast of sorts, Howard Roark, and his electric relationships to the other alive characters that took my breath away. The year my daughters were born, during my maternity leave, Carry On reminded me of my deep love for Harry Potter. And then there was Uprooted, because Jesus Christ, how can a novel have that much magic, and horror, and emotion, and love? But still, no series that caught me up quite like The Boy Who Lived and his story.

Now, I have come face to face with what will most certainly be a life long adversary, for I will forever have to fight for headspace with this series even now that I have breathed its final breath.  The Raven Cycle starts with The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. A psychic’s daughter sees a spirit on the corpse road, which means he will be dead within the next year. That non-psychic Blue Sargent can see him means he is either her true love or she is the one who kills him. Considering her family of psychic women have all predicted she would kill her true love with a kiss since forever, she isn’t precisely excited by either scenario. Especially when she meets the boy of the mysterious spirit to see he is a very much alive and very much the bastard that she has come to think of the private school Aglionby boys. Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah are on a quest to find and wake the sleeping Welsh king Owen Glendower, and Blue is willing to overlook Gansey’s faults (and the constant whisper of her hand in his impending death) to join them.

trb drawing

Art by Maggie Stiefvater

The series is so much more than this starting point, this single moment in a universe of moments, each as powerful and vibrant as all the others. But I did not expect what came next, which made the novel–and the following three –all the more mind-blowing.

The Raven Cycle has, not only, “it all” but so much of “it all” that I feel very near to combustion when I think about it. Three-dimensional-walk-out-of-your-dreams characters, palpable tensions, tragedies, the crisscrossing strings tying events, places, and characters together, and an atmosphere so terrifyingly alive, I could feel it breathing against my ear.

I read the entire saga in June, and in August, started listening to the audiobooks, because I was dying to hear Will Patton voicing Kavinsky, a character from the second (and my favorite) book in the saga, The Dream Thieves. I was not disappointed with his performance.

kavinsky ronan

Art by Cassandra Jean at cassandrajp.tumbler.com***

Listening to the books so soon after reading them allowed me to appreciate all the concentric circles, the resonating themes, the sheer magnitude and power of this idea. 

One article claims the series is “a meticulously crafted cycle that rewards rereading in heaps” (don’t read these essays until you’ve read the series). And when I reread it less than two months later–listened to it–I enjoyed it even more the second time around for this reason, the intricacy, and magic, and infinity of it all.

“There were many versions of Gansey, but this one had been rare since the introduction of Adam’s taming presence. It was also Ronan’s favorite. It was the opposite of Gansey’s most public face, which was pure control enclosed in a paper-thin wrapper of academia. But this version of Gansey was Gansey the boy. This was the Gansey who bought the Camaro, the Gansey who asked Ronan to teach him to fight, the Gansey who contained every wild spark so that it wouldn’t show up in other versions…Ronan didn’t really care. All that mattered was that something had struck the match, and Gansey was burning.”  –From The Dream Thieves

I am so in love with these books, these characters, I have an ache in my chest when I am looking around listlessly, trying to remember what it was that had my heart so high in the sky–and then remembering: The Raven Cycle. And how it’s over. But lo, it is not. Maggie Stiefvater is working on a new trilogy for Ronan, my favorite character in the series (hint: ALL the characters are my favorite). You have time to read these damn books before the era of the new trilogy dawns. Please read or listen to the audiobooks and come back and tell me what you think. I will never tire of singing this series’s praises.

I will be going to see Maggie for her All The Crooked Saints signing in October. I wish I could smash all these words into a concise, heart-felt utterance of the crush I have on her brain and my devotion to and adoration of this world she’s created. Instead, I’ll probably just stand in front of her smiling like I’ve been body-snatched and forget my own name. Alas, this will have to suffice.

***Don’t look up fanart because spoilers! Listen to this song the author wrote instead–it conveys the tone of the series so beautifully

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Night Swimming

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais

On a whim, I decide to go swimming. At 9 pm. Actually, it wasn’t really decision on a whim. I wanted something to keep my mind off a cigarette. The burn I have in my lungs right now is familiar, though an altogether different torture than sitting outside late into the night, reading or writing hundreds of thousands of words, all the while smoking like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, asking myself ‘who are you?’

So now, I’m out here on my back in this pool, facing my fear of large bodies of water at night, vulnerable to whatever imaginary leviathin waits beneath me. There is almost no separation between me, floating, weightless as I’ve ever been, and the sky with its modest smattering of stars, only the border of the palm trees winked at by the light colliding against the restless waves in the pool. I row myself like a boat, like a canoe if we’re being honest, because I’m programmed to wish myself long and lean. And all I can hear are the sounds of my arms breaking the water with a muffled splash and my breathing in stereo, like the opening of an indie film. I could reinvent myself out here tonight, I think, while simultaneously trying to merge with the vast nothing above me.

Stop. I decided to go swimming on a whim. No. That was it–to keep my mind off a cigarette. Now about that…

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The Importance of Not Having A Plan

Going on a writing retreat without a plan as to what to write let’s you take in the beach, rather than wracking your brain for something that will be relevant to your readers. Write what’s natural to you, they say. Unfortunately, what’s natural for me is doubt and self-consciousness.

Instead, I open my hands in the sand and dig until dry, loose grains give way to the hard-packed aggregate sleeping beneath, still covered in the blanket of last night’s high tide. I dig with my nails, breaking it up, feel each piece in my hand, an individual and collective weight. Nothing else feels quite like this–a handful of damp sand. I let it go at some point, either before walking out to the water or once I get there. Going anywhere without a plan does not mean without purpose; aimless and unmotivated, the journey begs for your enjoyment, your presence. You can feel the salt cauterizing your lungs. You jump and laugh in the waves without remembering you’re 31 goddamn years old. After, you lay on the beach, sore from fighting against the ocean, only somewhat displeased by the sand granules imprinting your cheeks and sticky salt expanding your follicles. You sit on the emptied beach at night with your best friend beside you and stare toward the sound of the waves, seeing ghosts at the break.

You lay in a strange bed with only a screen, which may or may not be locked, between you and the outside (your friend was drunk when she attempted to lock it). You listen to the sound of the waves lapping, like listening for your newborn’s sleeping breath. You have a full-blown night terror about a Dementor stepping out of that Conjuring wardrobe in your room, throwing your heart against your rib cage, and jerking you back to consciousness on the other side of the bed.

Maybe it was the overindulgence of nicotine or alcohol, or the cappuccino from the self-aware Italian restaurant just steps from your temporary residence. Either way, you’ve dreamed. You’re alive.

Going on a writing retreat without a plan cracks you open–a bone saw to your waiting sternum that bursts apart with a sudden break in the pressure. It lets you see, think, and feel again. It lets you breathe with new, raw lungs, washed by the salt. It lets you carry home that sand still under your nails and shows you that you don’t have to let all of your doubt and negativity go. You only have to outsmart it by writing in spite of it.

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Gut Instinct

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For my birthday last year, my husband gave me Jane Hirshfield’s Come, Thief. I remember picking it up, devotedly caressing its pages, being slightly disappointed by the cover that was not the one I wanted, then chastising myself for being picky.

I remember opening to the first poem, “French Horn”. I remember reading it. I remember not getting it. Not a damn word. My brain stayed closed like a flower with night still pressing upon it. I put Come, Thief away.

It’s been in the back of my mind for weeks now, because I realized I have not written a poem in months, maybe even closer to a year. I haven’t felt the inspiration for one. But lately, I’ve been catching others’ poems here and there, like light glinting off a reflective surface from its meridian. You look, but you can’t stare for more than a second because it hurts your eyes. I want that feeling of a poem rushing out of me. I’m ready for it. But I know I need to reacquaint myself with its language. So today, I picked up Come, Thief. I read “French Horn” again. This time, the locked language of the poem moved the machinery of my brain, allowing me to unlock the phrases, piece by piece, to embrace the whole.

Returning to the work of this favorite poet was like slipping into a pool of water the exact temperature of my body, then sinking deeper to be surprised by the colder recesses. But I was ready for it. And it was a pleasant shock to be immersed back in that language when I would be most receptive to it.

“Intuitions are not to be ignored, John. They represent data processed too fast for the conscious mind to comprehend.” –Sherlock

I finally sat down to the fourth season of the BBC’s Sherlock, and this quote from the first episode enamored me. It went so well with this idea that has been crackling in my brain about gut instinct. The same instinct that lead me back to Hirshfield at the right time.

Before my first poem was accepted, I had submitted it to maybe three or four places, along with some other elementary attempts. One day, going through these rough poems, “The Insolubility of Nightmares” jumped out at me as the one with the most potential. I revised it. When I stood back and looked at the completed picture, I had that gut instinct that told me this is done.  Now it’s ready for publication, I thought, and the right place will take it. Not that it is an exemplary poem in the Realm of All Poetry That Ever Was, but the concept of it had been teased into completion and polished to its highest form. Do I have stronger poems than that, published and unpublished? I think so. But my gut told me that specific poem was done. After that revision, I sent “The Insolubility of Nightmares” to Hello Horror, a newer lit mag at the time, and I received that coveted first acceptance.

At some point along this uphill trek to build my writing credits, I realized I don’t want sub-par work out there. With my story “The Wake“, I liked it about as much as I like some of my short stories I’ve stopped submitting because I know they’re not the best they can be. So when I looked at “The Wake” again with a more critical eye, I knew I needed a more explosive ending. Now, the note on which it ends is more faithful to my narrator’s personality and the choices she makes with her “scientific mind”. This alteration of her thoughts in the end made me get that same tugging in my gut: this is done. After this overhaul, the first place to which I sent it accepted. ☺ Coincidence? No.

For writers, I’m starting to understand that instinct is just as important as the other nuts and bolts in one’s writer toolbox. Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t feel that gut instinct crying out to you:

You’re not ready for that yet. 

or

This poem is not complete. 

or

It’s time to move on. 

or

It’s time to leap.

Just like everything takes practice to get better, so too does listening to one’s intuition, I’ve discovered. You get to know yourself, the fears that you must eschew, your lavish ambitions, your limitations, and your potential. I’m learning to let my gut instinct help sift through these aspects of myself, to better hear its call through the fog, whether prudent restraint or quiet encouragement.

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The Writing Kind

“The sensual novelist and his admirer, are beings of depraved appetites and sickly imaginations, who having learnt the art of self-tormenting, are diligently and zealously employed in creating an imaginary world, which they can never inhabit, only to make the real world, with which they must necessarily be conversant, gloomy and insupportable.”

Patrick Brontë’s children had the run of his books and must have read these words often, but no group of young people ever took less heed of such a warning.

–From Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, Claire Harman

Sometimes I wake up before the sun does to satisfy this craving. I shuffle on aching bones that ache for no reason other than holding up my person to the coffee machine. I say machine because it is not the simple device the coffee maker is. Insert cup under spit, deposit cup of grounds on top of needle, pull lever to enact piercing and scalding processes. Acquire sweet treat if one has been hunted in the wilderness and brought back home on recent scavenging trip. No, these are not the cravings this beast has woken at this ungodly hour to satiate.

I shuffle back to office and sit down. Squirm in chair. Aching bones and all. Open blinds because sometimes our kind like to feel connected to the great outdoors. Shut blinds. Dawn is too bright.

The images of a recent dream dance a quadrille in my mind’s eye: a formal dining room resplendent with light from a three-sided bay window; the room occupied by a crudely made dining room table circa 1970 at which nobody sits; outside the window were rose bushes, not all the picture of health, some new blooms, some leaves snail-bitten, but the coral pink of their petals struck the eye amid the shaded garden vista.

Return to the now. Sometimes it’s not even my own inner voice demanding it, but that of them, those clamorous beings in my head. Mind torn between sickly leaves and murmuring voices caressing my brain, I turn back to the work at hand. I do not know where to begin. So I just open a door. Sometimes the words that satisfy the craving sputter out as though from the irked coffee machine. Sometimes they pour out as easy and rich as cream.

Sometimes the craving is fixed at night over coffee again, of course, and often a mischievous cigarette. The sounds of Saturday night surround us like the rings around Saturn. As massive and exclusive as our inner worlds are, we cannot seem to shake the rest off the world. But the company, the indulges of nicotine and caffeine, again, are not the primary cravings sought at this assembly.

It is the build up of weeks in planning, the preparation, the carefully laid stonework and mortar of verb, noun, and article. The layering of tone, character, and story. It is of like minds meeting like, kinfolk in this art sitting down with me on the other end of the screen before the sun rises, or in a patio chair across from me at the local coffee shop until midnight. It is solitude, as well. It is living two lives: the external, full of aching sorrow, vivid joy, and twisting nostalgia; and the mind’s life, full of aching sorrow, vivid joy, and twisting nostalgia.

For the writing kind, this craving is necessary.

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