BOOK and DECK REVIEW: ‘The Raven Boys’ Novels and The Raven’s Prophecy Tarot

 

Okay, so some preliminary discussion is in order before I get to my actual review of Maggie Stiefvater’s writing and artistic work, The Raven Boys Chronicles series and its companion merchandise, The Raven’s Prophecy Tarot deck…

 

I’ll admit it…sometimes I read Young Adult-genre (YA) fiction. Sometimes the adult magical-realism-genre fiction and other adult thriller-genre fiction don’t cut the mustard. Sometimes an adult just wants to be engrossed in all the possibility encompassed in YA fiction…the whole world spread out before one’s self, still tempting amazing adventures,…rather than plodding through the realities of the known horrors of the world, the drudgery of the 9-to-5 ethic in order to conform to society’s expectations and status quo. YA fiction taps into the potential and breadth of imagination; adult fiction often means escaping reality.

 

So when some online friends started recommending Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys series of YA fiction…I checked it out. Often I do this under the auspices of pre-reading appropriate literature for my young niece and nephew, the older of which is just about in that “YA” marketable category. But I need to put this caveat in here: the YA fiction of my generation is not the YA fiction of today’s generation, and frankly, I’m REALLY not certain that some of today’s YA fiction is appropriate for what my generation considered “YA.” I am undoubtedly considered an old fogey for such a pronouncement. But is it so outlandish to be concerned that some products, literature, visual entertainment, and media are simply pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable—or psychologically healthy—for young minds to absorb?

 

Yes…I’m one of those people who feel that violent and misogynistic video games have an affect on the psychology of young people who engage with it. I’m one of those people who feel that nonchalantly depicting mass murder in cinematic film—ala Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in the 1980s with body counts in the thousands—desensitize people to the value of human life and consciousness. I’m one of those people who is irked by the fact that over half of all movie posters for American films depict guns as though they were just standard accoutrements for every citizen and that every citizen was required to use one in order to live a normal, healthy life.

 

I realize that there have been countless studies showing that violent video games have no affect on the psyche of young people playing them. I suppose what I’m saying is that I believe that most of those studies are therefore flawed. I don’t think that a finite-timeline laboratory experiment or study can evaluate all the subtleties of the human psyche and long-range effects on the brain. I don’t think that those studies can account for repetitive desensitization and aggressive reinforcement or the long-term synaptic response to repetitive violent structuring. I think that a lot of the violence perpetuated today has to do with societal desensitization via such media, giving visual reinforcement for the condoning of real-life reflections of visual stimuli.

 

It’s not that I think that young people should be shielded from understanding about world events, globalization, and historical and repeatable potential violence and evil in the world. It’s that I am concerned with how much more impressionable young people are, and that desensitization to empathy and suffering is not a virtuous or admirable impression to be instilling in young people.

 

You are welcome to disagree with me…but that’s what I think.

 

I also think, conspiracy theories aside, that American/Western civilization is so biased toward corporate capitalist consumerism, that such studies—and the media that report on them—are likely to be self-serving ombudsmen for perpetuating commercial monetization. If there is a war to be fought, perhaps it ought to be oversight and regulation of capitalism’s exploitation of psychological manipulation. I wouldn’t be the first person to contemplate or advocate such a thing…

 

 

So getting slightly back to my review…while having completed the first two books in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys chronicle—as an adult—I enjoyed this literary offering very much… Did you hear that, Stiefvater fanatics? Don’t hate me: I. liked. the. books. I’m planning on finishing the rest of the series.

 

But that said, I wouldn’t allow my 12-year-old niece (despite her highly advanced reading level) to read such a series. Frankly, I don’t think I’d advocate that a 14- or 15-year-old family member read such a series. (If you’re reading this blog, dear niece, take heed…). I’m not trying to fixate on The Raven Boys series as inappropriate for children; note that I also would never recommend The Hunger Games (dystopian YA fiction) or the Twilight series (fantasy-horror-romance YA fiction). There is a difference between J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games series… Rowling’s books map the progress of a young group of children learning about virtues and morality and ethics in the course of facing adversities…as they are mentored through adversities and have to make ethical decisions based on that supervised advocacy. Some of the adversities they face are truly horrific. The Harry Potter series gets very dark at times. The Hunger Games series, alternatively, unfolds a plot whereby innocent children are forced to defend themselves in situations of vice and lethal mortality in—literally—nightmarish situations of abandonment, abuse, and terror. (Forcing children to kill one another can be considered nothing less.)

 

The American Library Association defines “Young Adult” age parameters as between 12 and 18 years of age. Another resource however, indicates that YA authors, themselves, are more apt to define their audience as between 15 to early-20s. All kinds of arguments can be made for disputing those varying age ranges and there are even genres that seek to broach the difference—“Tween” fiction being one of those newer genres. The obfuscation goes even further when one considers the cross-over market of YA fiction (Do more adults read the Harry Potter series than actual adolescents?), and the fact that individual young people mature at completely different rates.

 

Also, anyone could take me to task for thinking that my generation’s YA fiction is different from today’s YA fiction… The ALA considers The Lord of the Flies by William Golding to be Young Adult fiction. In fact it is part of the syllabus or curriculum for thousands of high school classroom English courses in America. Call me sensitive, but I was terrorized by Golding’s book as a student in advanced junior high humanities English (8th grade)…perhaps because the theme of bullying rang far too poignantly in my confused, terrorized, (and bullied) gay youth. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad novel, just that I might not have been ready for it when I was forced to read it. Despite its cautionary tale message about unrestrained Id, all that my mind absorbed was, “that kind of aggression and violence could happen to me,” (and sometimes did). As with almost all things in life, individual accommodation or consideration—as with reading level preparedness—is often a good policy. A few years ago, my niece thought she was ready for more “YA” fare from the library, and her advanced reading capabilities indicated she might well be. So she read a popular YA book that involved ghosts…and ended-up have night terrors for a while. Lesson learned.

 

The youngest [main] character in the The Raven Boys books is—I believe—fifteen years of age. The other main characters are approximately seventeen-verging-on-eighteen…in other words, verging on adulthood themselves. There are a lot of curse words blatantly thrown around in these books—not soft curse words, but the heavy ones. There is physical and mental abuse committed by family members. There is—wait for it—consumerist idolatry. There are drugs and casual imbibing of narcotics. There are guns; there are hit men (assassins); there are casual murders…several of them. To me, that’s not YA fiction…or rather, I should say: That’s not YA fiction from my generation’s perspective. What needs to be repeated is that the boundary of “youth” and “young adult” are seemingly tested and pushed back as we “progress” forward in time. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Presenting adult psychological situations and ethics on younger and younger individuals seems to be begging them to grow up much faster and catch-up with adult situations too fast. And I say this as someone who admittedly put myself in situations where, as a young person, I was sometimes too anxious to become an adult ahead of my time. Children ought to have the chance to be children—and even adolescent people—certainly with the right mentoring and preparations to make wise choices later in life, but with the opportunity to experience the joys afforded by a safe childhood. A pipe dream in our current global society perhaps…and certainly not available for all children around the world, such as in war-torn regions. But every child deserves that kind of safety and joy.

 

So having established the fact that Stiefvater’s books are perhaps for adults who are young (as opposed to young adults)… Stiefvater has created a tarot deck that reflects the themes in The Raven Boys Chronicle of books. I have to admire Maggie Stiefvater for her creative output—being that she is both a successful novelist and writer as well as an accomplished artist (and apparently a musician as well)…the Renaissance woman it would seem, a dream life for a lot of us creative types.

 

 

And I like the deck…

 

It’s not without its criticisms, but they have to do with the manufacture and printing choices of the publisher (Llewellyn Worldwide Publishing) and not with the strictly esthetic value of the deck or the artist’s/author’s creation. (Unfortunately, the publisher’s manufacturing-printing choices affect the overall esthetic value somewhat, which is a shame, but seems correctable through better judgment on the publisher’s part…at least for future projects.)

 

Photo from Maggie Stiefvater’s promotional website.

 

Stiefvater’s deck does not conform to standard Rider-Waite-Smith imagery (nor with imagery from the Marseille tarot). Yet…standardized card definitions can be deduced from the artwork. Stiefvater’s forté artistic medium appears to be colored pencil (or more specifically, as one fan on another web blog review pointed-out: Prismacolor colored pencils on Colourfix paper with turpenoid solvent). This gives the images a somewhat hazy or sanded effect. The colors still “pop,” however, and are mostly on a black background.

 

The suits are defined on the cards as standard tarot suits: swords, cups, coins, and wands. On some of the cards, this is difficult to tell, though, because those standard suits are visually swapped for (respectively) hands, ravens, roses, and fire symbology. Images—while vibrant—are more stark (less complexly decorated with subsidiary background or surrounding details like the “staged” or environmental backdrops in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot, for example). This somehow doesn’t detract from reading perception, however. In fact, the more minimal, more symbolic imagery inspires more intuitive readings, rather than memorized definitions.

 

Photo from Maggie Stiefvater’s promotional website.

 

Interestingly, the novels inform the tarot deck, and the tarot deck seems to inform the novels, so it truly is a complimentary project. Stiefvater has quite a fan following, and her admirers I’m sure were only too happy to have more momentos of the series. This is marketing capitalism at its best (sigh), but it is done well and admittedly expands the understanding of themes and characters in the book (for me, anyway). As the author sagely states in the accompanying deck decoder book:

 

“…Every spread [of the tarot] is an opportunity to shape our current life events into a story with ourselves firmly installed as the hero at the heart of it. Stories are a way of imposing structure and control, and tarot is a way of imposing structure and control on our own spiritual growth. Tarot is inherently self-centered, helping you understand what you can control in your current situation, even if you feel powerless. It’s also inherently positive: even if the most negative cards in the deck are ultimately focused on emotional health and becoming a better version of yourself. It’s also inherently intimate. The cards are not magic. The wisdom in them is really just the wisdom in you.”

 

That seems to me an excellent summary of tarot in general. And it helps explain what several of the characters are going through in the novels. They are children themselves, some having experienced extremely traumatic pasts, they often think of themselves as powerless in their predicaments, and are constantly trying to discover who they are in relation to the world, in relation to one another, in relation to the expectations of others upon them…

 

But while Stiefvater explains her tarot deck as grounded in reality, each of the boys in her novels seems to resolve fairly real-world issues of distress (poverty, loneliness, anger) with supernatural abilities. …Or maybe their supernatural abilities just add to the issues of distress, and the real wisdom comes from what they know inside of themselves. But it seems like supernatural abilities resolve quite a bit of the existential fixes they get themselves into. Even though the tarot features rather prominently in Stiefvater’s novels, its use is depicted in a mystical light. In the second novel, Adam uses the cards in order to communicate with the forest of mystical Cabeswater; but as the forest loses “energy,” Adam loses his ability to interpret the cards (kind of in contradiction of Stiefvater’s description of how reading the cards is a matter of inner wisdom). Also, the household psychics at 300 Fox Way are rather otherworldly with their abilities…able to do things with their sight that only fictitious characters could achieve. While great storytelling, that’s also not what true wisdom is. Rather, the more true-to-life wisdom is found in the type of parenting that the household provides for Blue, the daughter of one of the women psychics and the only resident who doesn’t have the “sight” (at least through book two…). But this book series is YA fantasy, so who am I to complain?…

 

The images among the minor arcana suits of The Raven’s Prophecy Tarot deck compliment one another and all of the images in the Major Arcana so extremely well that relation-ality is easily achieved; it’s highly conducive to creating a storyline. Reading with this deck is kind of a joy. If there’s any minor disappointment with the design of the deck it would be that the card back design is not reversible. The author is forthright about stating that she does not read reversed cards. But it seems like such a minor task to make a design that’s the same either up or down. I mean, really, how hard is that? It’s a matter of frustration for a whole contingent of readers who do prefer to include reversed card meanings in their readings. It’s a recurrent problem with deck design, however, so we deal with it. Also the orange borders around the card images…not my fave, as is apparently the consensus of several other reviewers.

 

The non-reversible card back of The Raven’s Prophesy Tarot

 

So what’s the biggest problem? There is an odd discrepancy in the printing job. At first I thought that maybe it was a totally random exception to the particular deck I happened to buy…until I read on a couple more blog reviews about the same exact issue. One of the other blog reviews was eerily similar, down to the card in the deck where manufacture error was found

 

Even before opening the cellophane wrapper around the deck cards, there appeared to be a “gap” in the deck. I had no idea what could have caused such an anomaly, but upon removing the cellophane, the gap did not disappear. Going through the deck—which is packaged in numerical-suit order—revealed that a card was missing…at the exact spot where the gap occurred. What’s more, the gap was accentuated by the fact that the deck on one side of the gap was warped (slightly bent and bowed), thus distinguishing the gap space. Even more bizarre was the fact that the print color on one side of the gap was of a different shade than the remainder of the deck. That’s a pretty obvious give-a-way that the deck was not from the same print run, but instead was a mishmash of remainder print runs that were put together. At a minimum, it is shoddy handling and packaging by the printer that was contracted by Llewellyn (the publishing company of the deck).

 

The evident “gap” in the newly opened deck revealing the printing house error…

 

Deck lying down flat or standing on end, the printing discrepancy is evident…

 

Thus, I was forced to contact Llewellyn with receipt information (proof of purchase) in order to request the missing card (The Eight of Wands). Llewellyn is usually quite gracious in resolving such issues regarding their merchandise, and they did indeed send me a replacement card. …But it might be telling that Llewellyn is the only deck publisher that I have had to contact about missing or damaged product…for more than one of their deck products.

 

Note to Llewellyn: If a contracted partner (such as a printing house or bindery) is not producing an end product to sufficient quality standards…you need to bid out and find a new contract partner. There is something to be said for longevity and comfort in a business partner relationship, but failure on quality of product is a deal-breaker. Why? Because you’re going to lose the customer relationship and customer dedication that you need to maintain.

 

A view that shows how the majority of the deck was warped. This problem would easily be ameliorated with a higher grade of paper stock… though it likely is due to printing house handling as well.

 

As other reviewers have noted, the card stock for this deck is inferior. For such a lovely artistic work, it’s a shame that such thin and inferior material was chosen as its medium. One can only assume that Llewellyn budgets their product based on the inferior materials that they choose to use, while the philosophy of disposable consumerism dictates that Llewellyn believes customers will simply purchase additional copies if the product rips or fails or disintegrates. Well, that’s capitalism for you. But I’m not sure it’s true at $28.99 (US dollars) a pop…

 

Overall, I’m not sad that I invited Maggie Steifvater’s talents into my life, save for the caveats of appropriate reading level I explored above. The series will, I’m sure, prove just as exciting and entertaining for my niece when I pass them on to her…several years down the road from now. I’m also pleased to have Stiefvater’s artwork in a tarot deck that will seemingly prove useful in readings. It’s just a shame that the publisher did her such a disservice with the printing job.

 

 

 

 

 

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