There is nothing particularly wrong with young adult fiction, it makes readers out of people who might not otherwise pick up a book, but it does rely on a different set of tropes. The ‘magic pixie dream girl’ trope is one of many to becoming a mainstay in teen books and is also the subject of mocking from the wider literary world. Some of that mocking is well deserved as it speaks to the continuing unrealistic representations of young women in media, but other aspects are just traits that make characters interesting to read about – especially in the kind of light fantasy that dominates YA books. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater makes at least a marginal attempt to subvert this trope by having a cast of magic pixie dream boys instead. The boys are the compelling characters of the story and have the kinds of quirky, forceful personalities that are associated with the dream girl trope. Whether it is an intentional subversion or not, the Raven boys show off the best of a trope at the heart of many light fantasy books where traditional fantasy archetypes would seem out of place.
Although Blue (soon to be nicknamed Jane) is the main character and narrator of the Raven Cycle it is Gansey, one of the students at the private all boys boarding school that comes out of the gate as a more interesting character. He is a chronic insomniac, student of Latin, and a mythology buff, but not in a stuffy uptight way that typical nerds of teen books are. Instead he is the one who is pulling Blue out of her shell with a confidence in his own quirks and obsessions. Its not that these quirks are blindly accepted by those around him, its that he has a strong enough personality to make the quirks seem cool. Usually in YA books the manic pixie dream girl is pulling the nerdy boy out of those kinds of interests and out to appreciate the world. Gansey needs no such thing and his confidence gives him the kind of destined hero mystic that is important to his role in the story. His plot arc is actually quite similar to that of Aragorn in Lord of the Rings but Stiefvater is able to establish Gansey’s character in a way that is more believable for the kind of series that the Raven Cycle is.
However, Stiefvater does keep the questing company grouping for her characters and with it there is the very typical fantasy gender imbalance. Blue becomes the lone girl in a group of boys and her association with them is fairly reluctant at that. This is familiar from many classic fantasy series where there tends to be a token woman who is being dragged along, or hiding her identity, or is overly sexualized. Blue is in that first group but she is also the one with the expertise and holds all kinds of knowledge about the area that the boys would be lost without. Because she is separated from having to play the YA manic pixie dream girl her role in the group seems more serious and respected. Blue does not feel like a token woman and she stands at least a little bit apart from other YA heroines.
All of these choices work because of the world building, a small town with a fancy boys private school. Within these parameters the characters are believable in a way that they wouldn’t be in a more traditional fantasy world. However, the magic in Stiefvater’s books is perfect for that setting as it tends to be subtle, a little strange and very particular. Although the books occasionally claim devastating consequences the magic and adventure that Blue, Gansey and the rest of the characters encounter tends to be very self contained. This allows the kind of mundane dramas that are central to YA books to make their way in with high school relationships, homework and family problems which add a layer of relatability.
Young adult fantasy relies on a different kind world building, tropes, and characters than more mainline fantasy works but the Raven Cycle clearly demonstrates that just like traditional fantasy archetypes they have the potential to be interesting with the right author. By twisting fantasy elements like the questing company through the ways that characters take roles and undermining YA tropes like the manic pixie dream girl Maggie Stiefvater ends up with a great cast of characters who feel unique and compelling to read about. Gansey in particular is the kind of quirky that feels realistic and like a whole person even after he turns out to be the modern incarnation of an ancient magical king. His presence balances out a character like Blue who could easily fall into the tropes of either fantasy or YA fiction. In a genre known for over dramatic extremes the Raven Cycle is surprisingly well balanced.