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Review: The Dream Thieves

Review: The Dream Thieves

Title: The Dream Thieves
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Published: 2013
Length: 448 pages

My star rating: ★ ★ ½

In this sequel to the magical Raven Boys, Ronan Lynch struggles to cope with the demons of his past, demons which sometimes literally pursue him–in the form of monsters that emerge from his dreams. Meanwhile, he and his best friends Adam Parrish and Richard Gansey III continue to pursue Owen Glendower, the legendary Welsh king that Gansey believes to be buried–though sleeping, not dead–within the hills that surround their Virginia town.

I’m going to start with things I enjoyed about this book for a change.

Maggie Stiefvater’s prose is as poetic as ever, but this time it did not hold me in its thrall as it did before. When she does it right, she really knows how to turn a phrase, and the result can be quite beautiful.

Perpetually angry, angsty Ronan Lynch was easily my least-favorite of the previous novels titular Raven Boys. I was thus not really looking forward to a whole book in his point of view. Well, a) this book may have focused more on Ronan than the last, but it wasn’t only in his POV, and b) Ronan had his moments. He and his angst are still very overwrought, but yes–he had his moments. I also think it’s important to have a popular YA series that focuses on the issues young men face, because the genre is dominated by female authors and female MCs.

And finally, for a book with little by way of plot, The Dream Thieves really picks up in the last hundred pages. This is only after three-hundred-plus pages of dragging its feet like dead weight, but it does happen.

Unfortunately, there are Major Problems with the entire book–including those last hundred pages–that distracted, bored, and sometimes infuriated me.

So first things first: Stiefvater’s lyrical writing enchanted me in The Raven Boys. Perhaps the stars in my eyes blinded me to the kinds of nonsensical metaphors, pretentious “insight” and philosophizing, unsuitable modifiers (i.e., Gansey’s “aggressively green polo shirt”), and painfully quirky/intentionally unique phrases and passages that are present in TDT. Seriously, there is a lot of wasted ink in these pages. The impression I got from the first page to the last was that Stiefvater was trying way too hard.

It starts off badly in this regard and does not improve:

[His father] always said Ronan differently from other words. As if he had meant to say another word entirely — something like knife or poison or revenge — and then swapped it out for Ronan’s name at the last moment. (2)

What does that even mean? What are readers to make of a statement like that? This line, and others like it, made me unsure whether to laugh or scratch my head.

I think this quote sums my issues with Stiefvater’s writing nicely (and shows that she had at least one moment of self-awareness!):

“I did explain it.”

“No, you used nouns and verbs together in a pleasing but illogical format.” (40)

That’s it. That’s this book. Nouns and verbs thrown together in a pleasing but illogical manner, usually to form pointless, meandering sentences that merely take up space and do nothing to advance the plot–the plot which itself never really arrives.

And the characters? No one but Ronan had any personality to speak of. I’ve read reviews both praising Blue and putting her down, but for me she was just…there. I tried to remember who Blue was in TRB and why she appealed to me (or if she did), but I cannot, and the only thing TDT reminded me of was her strange fashion sense.  Likewise, I know little about Gansey besides his love for his Camaro and his obsession with finding Glendower. He is constantly described as charismatic, charming, otherworldly, “both young and old”, etc., but I never saw or felt it. Worst of all, these two empty characters–Blue and Gansey–are set up as love interests despite their utter lack of chemistry.\

In fact, Stiefvater sabotages Blue’s very organic-feeling relationship with Adam from the previous novel in order to set up her “fated” crush on/relationship with Gansey–way to strip your MC of her agency for the sake of “fate,” lady! I liked the budding romance between Adam and Blue; there was nothing forced about it. But no, Blue and Gansey are Meant To Be! What’s worse,  Blue is downright cruel to Adam, going so far as to berate him for failing to invite her to a function at which he, himself, was an invited guest. She should’ve been angry with Gansey for not thinking to invite her as well! Her behavior towards him throughout the novel is inexplicably cold. Nothing about it had the easy, natural feel of their relationship in TRB.

Ronan was still about as abrasive as steel wool, but his backstory is fleshed out, and readers got glimpses of him at his most vulnerable; tastes of his dreams and their demons. I wanted more scenes of Ronan with his brother Matthew, because that’s when he seemed most human. Also, borrowing a quote from Persy’s review of the first book, “Stiefvater has no meaning of the word ‘subtlety.’ Even her subtlety is unsubtle.” In Ronan’s case, what’s most unsubtle is his sexuality. It’s hinted at so many times that I wanted to shout, “ALRIGHT, HE’S GAY, I GET IT!” Yay, a homosexual male YA hero! Now do something with it that has meaningful impact on the story or just move on already.

And Adam…oh, Adam. My favorite, Remus Lupin-esque character from the first novel was here gutted and left for dead. In his place, Stiefvater put only a self-pitying, bitter, angsty shell that soon grew wearisome and frustrating to read about. To make matters worse, the vague “sacrifice” Adam made at the end of TRB was referenced almost constantly (without being clarified) here. Adam distanced himself from his friends and Blue because…reasons? There was scarcely a moment that he was not lamenting his poverty and family history.

This left me wondering: why was Adam’s poverty and abuse suddenly his entire identity? And why does Stiefvater handle it so very poorly when before, I–who also come from an abusive background–could identify and sympathize with Adam?

This quote from the first book was right on the money:

Objectively, he knew he was abused. He knew the damage went deeper than any bruise he’d ever worn to school. He could endlessly dissect his reactions, doubt his emotions, wonder if he, too, would grow up to hit his own kid. [The Raven Boys]

But in TDT, Blue and Gansey have a conversation about Adam and his family history that made me want to rage-quit then and there.

“Adam has killed himself for Aglionby,” he said suddenly. “And for what? Education?”

No one went to Aglionby for education. “Not just that,” she said. “Prestige. Opportunity?”

“But maybe he never had a chance.  Maybe success is in your genes.” (362)

So no matter how hard we work, as children of abusive parents we have no real opportunity to escape the trauma of our pasts? It was such bullshit. I’m still upset about it.

There were also two new villains: a trying-too-hard-to-be-mysterious hitman called the Gray Man (because he only ever wears grey) who was also a love interest for Blue’s mother Maura for some reason; and a trying-too-hard-to-be-edgy teenager called Kavinsky who spent most of the book antagonizing Ronan and pretending to be cool in his Mitsubishi. Yes–his Mitsubishi, of all the cars she could’ve picked! Anyway, neither of them impressed me. The Gray Man was a POV character, a dull one at that, and I ended up skimming any scene in which he was present.

That brings me to the concept of third-person omniscient and the way it’s used in this book. Some (better) authors I could name also boast many characters in their novels, a good number of whom are POV characters. But unlike Stiefvater, said authors devote specific chapters to each of them. Their narratives never shift mid-chapter–or sometimes mid-paragraph–from one character’s POV to another’s. The flowery language that was trying so hard to be profound but that mostly just got in the way of the plot was bad enough; Stiefvater complicated matters further through these strange, abrupt POV jumps. Instead of providing insight into the non-existent action going on by providing multiple perspectives, said jumps were partially responsible for preventing me from getting “into” the story. They also caused major pacing problems in an already-slow book.

If chapters couldn’t be contained to a single POV, they should at least have been contained to a single time frame, but sometimes hours or even a whole night passes within a chapter. Between that and skipping from POV to POV…what a mess!

One chapter in particular stood out to me because of its sheer ridiculousness (and pointlessness). It contained gems like this:

Then Maura made something with butter and Calla made something with bacon and Blue steamed broccoli in self-defense. (391)

Um, is that supposed to give me some insight into their characters…? Is it supposed to be funny, or at least clever…?  How did Blue make “broccoli in self-defense”? Is it because butter and bacon are unhealthy? And then it’s mentioned again:

[The Gray Man] ate his broccoli and butter and bacon, and Maura ate her butter, and Calla ate her bacon. (393)

This is not character development, nor is it clever. It is a waste of space. It’s padding. It’s b-o-r-i-n-g. And the whole book was like that. Useless words and turns of phrase that were attempting to be on some level amusing or deep, but were just…there.

Another example from the same page:

The reality of [the Gray Man’s] escape was far more difficult than he’d admitted to any of them. There was a car to worry about, money for food, money for gas. He had left a dirty pot in the sink at his home back in Massachusetts, and he would think about it forever. (393)

I think this is Stiefvater attempting “show, don’t tell”–i.e., the Gray Man is the type of person to dwell on a dirty dish in the sink–but it’s such a comically trivial detail, and there was so much about this vague, wannabe-mysterious character that readers still didn’t know (and never found out) that his worrying about a pot in the sink fifty pages from the end of the novel struck me as stupid and frustrating rather than interesting.

I could go on and on with lines like that, because the novel is full of them. If something happened, if there was a real plot, I might have felt more tolerant of the writing style…

But really, nothing does. The fantasy gets thicker and less believable in this volume, the premise being that Ronan can somehow bring objects back from his dreams (thus the title). Stiefvater implied that this was somehow connected to the search for Glendower–well, more than implied, since it’s revealed that Cabeswater itself is a kind of dream. The mythology is never clear, though, and what world-building there is is muddled and half-baked. (How do dreams outlive the dreamer, for instance? Why does more than one Aglionby student share Ronan’s gift–is it coincidence? Does the school simply draw gifted students because it’s on the ley line?) So many loose ends, so many unanswered questions.

In short: too much hormonal teen angst (especially Blue lamenting her curse–woe is me, I can never kiss anyone!), not enough Welsh mythology. Not nearly enough.

As other reviewers have said, TDT feels less like a sequel than a continuation or spin-off of The Raven Boys, like a drawn-out missing piece of that book, because TRB’s plot is never advanced and indeed, most of the characters and relationships that were the cornerstone TRB either stagnate or devolve. I’m inclined to think that you could almost skip from TRB to Blue Lily, Lily Blue and miss nothing of importance.

I read and finished TDT out of a stubborn desire to learn more–about Glendower, about Cabeswater, about Adam and Blue and Gansey and Aglionby–but mostly, I got a lot of exaggerated teen angst, swearing, drugs, and drag racing. I came out of the read barely remembering why I loved The Raven Boys, and that makes me saddest of all.

Because I’m a sucker, and because (despite my myriad complaints) I did not hate TDT, I’ll likely be reading the third book in the series, though I’m not in a hurry to do so after this disappointment. I hope that TDT is simply a bad bout of Middle Book Syndrome and that the final two are improvements.


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