Wednesday, September 23, 2015

On Friendships That Last, Being On Mission, and 'The Raven Cycle'


In a kind of hilariously apt turn of events, today's article is a little late because I was out last night (when I traditionally write my articles) trying to make some new friends. Since I haven't lived in Massachusetts in a decade or so, I don't have a lot of friends still around in this area, or at least not people I've kept in very close touch with. So last night was my chance to go to a church event and meet some nice people who I might possibly be able to make friends with.

I mention this as being "hilariously apt" because my socializing last night is the reason I couldn't come home and write an article for you on a book series that very deeply examines friendship. Because I was out making friends. Get it?!

The Raven Cycle is a series of four books (three of which are already out) by Maggie Stiefvater that consider deeply the friendships we make throughout our lives. Also it's about a bunch of kids trying to find a Welsh king who may or may not have been buried somewhere in Virginia and who might be supernaturally just sleeping and not actually dead. It's about a lot of things. But mostly friendship.

See, while the story is all about the quest to wake this Welsh king, it's also about a group of high schoolers navigating their relationships. And for all that the plot is fantastical and supernatural and weird, the relationships are very human. Gansey has a crush on Blue. Blue is afraid of her feelings for Gansey so she dates Adam instead. Adam has no idea how he actually feels about Blue and is so stressed out he feels like he might be dying. Ronan has a crush on Adam. And in the background Noah is falling apart.

It's all about the relationships, and about how relationships and friendships are tangled up together in a way that is both completely understandable and unavoidable, and also frustrating and bad. This is a series that reminds us of the complexity of a single human being and then marvels at who we can be when put in a group. The grand achievements we can aspire to, and the petty arguments that pull us apart. The Raven Cycle is about friendship way before it's about anything else, and I love that.

Still, before we go any deeper, we should probably talk plot.

The first book of the series, The Raven Boys, explains how small town girl Blue Sargent finds herself caught up with a group of boys from the local boys only prestigious boarding school. Blue is a townie in Henrietta, Virginia. But far from the stereotype of the sweet nice girl, or the "too cool" girl, who populate young adult fiction these days, Blue is just plain weird. Weird by anyone's standards.

Blue is the daughter of her town's local psychic. Or rather, Blue is the youngest child in a whole family, a matriarchy, of psychics. Her mother, Maura, is really the best known, but Blue lives in a house positively overflowing with psychic women. There's her cousin Orla, who runs a psychic telephone hotline, her mother's friend Calla, who can get psychic readings off of objects she touches, various vague female relations scattered throughout the house and yard, all of them incredibly powerful psychics. Except for Blue. Blue's only gift is that she can make psychics stronger - she has no powers of her own.

Blue, then, is our main character, and a fascinating one she is. She's simultaneously self-assured and also unsure of what to do with her life. As the only non-psychic in a lineage of powerful witch-women, she's sort of at odds with her life. Sure, she could stay in the house at 300 Fox Way, making special teas to sell the people who come in for tarot readings, amplifying everyone's powers, making her way with the women of her family, or... Or she could not do that? Blue wants adventure and newness and life, but she isn't totally sure what to do about it.

Until, that is, she accompanies her mother to a yearly event at a local church. There, one night a year, those blessed with "sight" can see a procession of all the people who will die in the next year. Her mother always goes and makes a list of these people and it's known in some circles that if you want to know if you'll die that year, you can ask Maura and then get your affairs in order. It's helpful. Blue's just there to write names down and help amp up Maura's power, but she gets the shock her life when one of the spirits is actually visible to her. It's a boy, about her age, wearing the sweater of a private school boy. When she asks for his name he says "Gansey."

Obviously Blue is freaked the hell out. She isn't supposed to be able to see spirits. She doesn't have that power. In addition to all of that, Blue has a prophecy dangling over her head: if she ever kisses her true love, he'll die. So there's that.

And because this is a novel, Blue doesn't have to wait too long before "Gansey" appears in her life. He shows up at the pizza parlor where she works, accompanied by all of his friends, and she decides immediately that she hates him. He's rich and smarmy and smiles too easily and with too many shiny white teeth.

But she ends up involved anyway. Gansey, you see, is a private school boy with a mission. He's a weird kid. He's trying to track the ley lines of Virginia because he has a personal quest to discover the resting place of the Welsh king Glendower. And he thinks that Glendower is somewhere nearby. If he discovers him, wakes him from his sleep, then Gansey will get a "boon" - some kind of magical gift or blessing or pardon. And this has been Gansey's obsession and life's mission since he was a kid.

His friends are all committed to the mission as well, but each for their individual reasons. As Blue becomes more and more caught up for the search for Glendower and the lives of her "Raven boys", she discovers what those reasons are. Ronan, for example, helps Gansey out of an unflinching loyalty. Gansey stood by him through the most difficult times of his life so he helps Gansey with his quest. Adam, however, is different. He's a scholarship student at the school and helps Gansey partly out of friendship and also partly because he really wants that "boon", whatever it might end up being. And Noah, well, Noah has his own reasons for helping Gansey, which become clear at the end of the first book.

As the story progresses, all of these relationships get deeper. All of the characters become more invested in their quest, sure, but they also become more invested in each other. Through the trials that come in each book - The Raven Boys has a murderous former student tracking the boys down, while Dream Thieves involves someone sending a hit man after Ronan, and Blue Lily, Lily Blue features a pair of sociopathic rich people trying to find Glendower first and also kill everyone - these characters only become more entangled and more interested in each other. It's almost like constantly fearing for their lives and having a greater calling binds them together.

Funny thing.

And that's what I actually want to talk about. What I love about these books is the plot, sure, but it's more the way that they portray friendship. I think The Raven Cycle is one of the most coherent examinations of that topic I've seen in a long time. It looks at the way that real, life-changing friendships form, but it also looks at the cracks and tears that can come in friendships. The drifting apart and the fights and the arguments. It looks at all of the aspects of what it means to be a friend, and it doesn't flinch back from any hard truths.

The main thing the book emphasizes is that friendships are deepened and solidified when you have a common purpose. Not a common enemy, not really, but a common goal. You get close to people who you share a mission with. And it's not hard to see why. I mean, if you share a mission, then these are people you have to work closely with. They're people who are chasing after the same things you are. They're people who share your beliefs and experiences. Look at the trio in Harry Potter or Leslie Knope and her "workplace proximity associates" in Parks and Rec - their friendships thrive because they're all chasing after the same things.

Just from personal experience alone I know this to be true. The deepest friendships I have are with people who I did ministry with. They're with people who share my life experiences, yes, but also people who bled and cried and sweated with me in trying to do something we all thought was incredibly important. Even after we're done doing the thing, those friendships remain incredibly strong because their foundation is an understanding of mutual goal and respect.

But, as The Raven Cycle points out, just because you have a deep friendship founded on a common goal doesn't mean you won't also get in fights and arguments. The books show instances where each of the characters is tested and put at odds with the rest of the group. There's Adam's descent into madness as he tries to handle the power of having a magical forest in his head.* There's Ronan's decision to take himself and his bad life choices - drugs, street racing, questionable friendships - far away from the group and ignore all of them so they don't try to make him feel responsible. Blue gets fed up and goes away for a while. Noah has flashes of sudden rage and irreconcilable grief. Gansey can be, well, an asshole.

No human being is perfect and so no friendship is perfect. We all have moments when we love our friends deeply and also want to murder them so hard. It's normal and natural and the books point out that learning to deal with this is just another aspect of being a good friend.

The books actually look at this inter-generationally too, by giving us an example of a friend group who went through something similar a long time ago - a common purpose binding them together and giving them a mission - and how they've now matured into their friendship. With Maura, Blue's mom, and her best friends Calla and Persephone, we get representations of how this is true of friendships no matter the age. The people who go on mission with you are the people you cherish for the rest of your life. No one knows you better than the people who have worked beside you on a cause you care about deeply, right?

I mean, just on a purely surface level, I love Maura, Calla, and Persephone because they're presented as being fun and funny and still very good friends after all these years. It's rare to see representations of middle-aged women being friends like this, and even rarer to see it in the context of these women being pseudo-parents to a child and being the ones entrusted with raising this kid. Calla and Persephone aren't exactly mothers to Blue, but they're something. They're constants in her life, and a clear sign that the friends we make affect everyone else around us as well. 

I guess the point I'm getting at here is that friendship is something you do, not an intrinsic part of who you are. Being a friend means actually doing things with your friends. There's the emotional component of caring about them as a human being and asking about their life and telling them how much they matter to you, but there's also a more practical aspect of the things you do together. Your friendships are something that you do, that you invest in, and your friends are the people you do them with.

The last book of the Raven Cycle isn't out yet, but I have every confidence that it's going to hold this up. And yeah, there are lots of reasons why you should read these books (lots of powerful psychic ladies, a rad female main character, cool plot, The Grey Man, and more), but this is the one that sprung first to my mind. Friends. Mission. Doing things together because you think it matters.

What more do you need?


*One of the more interesting plotlines of the books, to be sure.

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