Review and Retrospective: The Raven Ring, by Patricia C. Wrede

Many of my readers will probably agree with the premise that Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are among the best YA books in the history of ever. The wild, gleeful skewering of tropes, the preponderance of dragons (automatically and immediately improving any book), the best use of rebellious princess syndrome in recent memory, Killer the levitating blue winged donkey who used to be a rabbit… I don’t know if I could critique these books even now, but when I was an even littler Ginger Waif, a wide-eyed and peculiar nerdling with an impossibly fast and demanding metabolism when it came to devouring books, Dealing With, Searching for, Calling on, and Talking to Dragons were pretty much the alpha and omega of what was awesome.

So after I’d read them ten or twelve times, I went looking for more by Wrede and, at the time, found it all in the intimidating grown-up section of the library and enjoyed what little I found there. This was before Google and I had to make due with what I had. Later in life, when used book stores, Sci-Fi club libraries, and the internet were available I did all I could to track down the early works of Wrede, as well as following her more recent stuff. Somehow, the only one that eluded me was The Raven Ring. Until now. Bwahahaha!

The Raven Ring is a novel of Lyra, the world Wrede created and mostly wrote in in her early career. The edition I got (on my schmancy ereader that seems to have laid claim to me entirely) rather interestingly includes the first chapter of the first book by the author as edited for a rerelease. I do enjoy these little glimpses into the writer’s thought processes, and it’s pleasantly humanizing to see one of the voices that defined my childhood, well, editing. Books seem to not actually burst fully-formed from the firmament, and it’s always nice to be reminded that a combination of work and talent rather than magic is responsible for great fiction.

While Lyra contains all kinds of strange creatures, The Raven Ring focuses on humans, and while there are ancient temples full of magical traps and sweeping landscapes and exotic locales of all sorts, almost all of the action of the book happens in a city, resulting in a sort of medieval urban fantasy of a kind I quite like (see, um, half the titles previously reviewed). The story follows Eleret, a warrior maiden who strikes out to the distant city to claim her soldier mother’s possessions following her suspicious death. She’s pulled into a bizarre intrigue surrounding a mysterious artifact and acquires some sidekicks. The Big Bads are alluded to. Apparently nothing bad ever happens in Lyra without the ultimate evil having a hand in it somewhere. It’s a little like Sunnydale that way.

SoThe Raven Ring is a good example of my lifelong idol’s work for adults and as a mature writer. I’m willing to say right here that it doesn’t work for me on the visceral level that theEnchanted Forest Chronicles did. Some of that is no doubt pure nostalgia at work, of course. I’m not aiming to make this a comparative review but rather to see how the dewy eyes of third-grade love work when the veneer of obsession is gone.

The writing in The Raven Ring is solid but unremarkable. There’s no stunning narrative voice to point to, though the dialogue is well constructed. The pacing of this rather short book feels occasionally pinched. There’s a lot of setup and a hurried payoff in the larger story arc, but individual plot threads are better. As I compared Swordspoint to a highly political LARP with erratically intertwining stories that never quite paid off, The Raven Ring strikes me as an investigative tabletop run by a small, intimate group that knows each other well, plays pretty neatly, and prefers the journey to the destination. The final showdown with the nefarious villain piles into an infodump of details the players didn’t catch on the way there and is finished in one climactic session of game.

To continue my nerdy, nerdy analogy (and I’m allowed because you’re already reading a spec-fic blog), the characters play together well. Eleret could be a generic grumpy action girl in an inferior author’s hands, but she has motivations and moods rooted in herself and the bizarre situation she finds herself in. She feels like a real person. Her sidekicks verge a little bit on the caricature in both cases, the dashing aristocratic rake and the snarky rogue. Wrede pulls them off and I admire a writer who takes old archetypes and breathes new life into them, but Daner is a little too Prince Charming wannabe and Karvonen a little too gleefully clever. they’re goofy. But it’s Eleret’s story. The main villain never has much of a character, but for good reasons; I’d say not having a real identity is a big part of the spookiness. He has some good minions, though. The supporting cast is just kind of there, I must admit. There are some soldiers and magicians and noble ladies and they amuse, but most of them just deliver plot points or conflict on cue.

The noble ladies actually point to a slight tonal issue in a lot of Wrede’s books, especially the older ones. As a rule, the positive characters are the ones who have swords or magic and go around doing useful things as far as the plot is concerned, and as long as they’re active and busy, the villains are generally at least interesting, if not sympathetic. People who prefer to ignore the tides of plot tend to get derided, which is fair enough, I suppose. Usually there’s a world or at least a large landmass and attendant population to save. Wrede likes high stakes. But while people who are mildly detrimental or wholly neutral as a whole just get made to look ridiculous, when these characters are female, they’re not just putting stupid stuff ahead of what’s important. They’re putting stupid girl stuff ahead of what’s important. Feminine heroines are alright, but if you’re a pesky sister or a courtesan with not much to do with furthering the story, you’re a stupid, dumb, girly girl who likes girl things.

As it happens, the Ginger Waif understands this issue. When one happens to be a girl, one is expressly and implicitly told over and over that these things over here are girl things for girls to like. If one happens not to be disposed to like the majority of those things (like, say, the color pink, ruffles, shopping, and so on), one becomes resentful, and that resentment can spill over onto the perfectly neutral totems of cultural femininity. And that in turn can spill over to the people who like those things. It’s clear to you that shoes and sequins are stupid and no one likes them (ah, self-centeredness), so people who seem to take honest joy in fashion and romance novels must be either disingenuous or stupid. I still have to remind myself every so often that there’s nothing wrong with happening to enjoy being what you’re expected to be.

I’ve heard Wrede speak at length on the subject of her female characters, but she dwelt on the heroines. Apparently, her stock answer to “How do you write such strong women?” is “Do you know any women?” Or something close to that. The talk was years ago. I don’t object to writing so that characters who are ambivalent to the plot are jerks, but I do object to using femininity as shorthand for shallowness.

Wow, that was… a tangent.

The story can’t be called generic, but it is a tad bit predictable as it unrolls. I can’t claim it’s the old “brave but naive warrior woman comes to the big city where various forces seem to coalesce around her and she makes friends with some entertaining weirdos and magic happens” yarn, but the mystery is far more for the characters than the genre-savvy reader. Karvonen injects a little chaos that the story badly needs, but even he can’t offset the predictability. That said, it’s a good story. It has all the important bits. Ennobling and base emotions at war, sword fights, intrigue. All the necessary elements, and it’s fun to read.

It’s hard to fairly assess the worldbuilding of The Raven Ring. I know a lot about Lyra and I suppose most readers of the book will as well, what with all that came before. That said, the Lyra books are all stand-alone stories, united only by universe, so the sense of place should be strong by itself. The city at the heart of the plot is fairly well explored, but it seems to consist entirely of inns, alleyways, maybe a market, and various buildings with NPCs waiting to dispense plot. It doesn’t have a lot of unique personality. Eleret’s homeland holds some interest, but so little of the action takes place there that all I know is that it’s mountainous and everyone there is warlike. The scary evil from beyond time is a little underwritten here (it makes a very oblique appearance, after all), so there wasn’t anything really scary going on. Though you might have a hard time finding a fantasy regular who’s easily scared by a bunch of ancient evil things that are evil and also evil rar. The magic at work is the most unique part. There’s a peculiar spin on tarot cards, some creepy and effective magical skullduggery, and some genre-standard magic-school sorcery, and it all works together well. The idea of superstition in a world with active magic is an interesting one, the same as mixing magic and gods, another idea that always draws me in.

So, altogether, The Raven Ring is a perfectly okay book with some real strong points. It’s nothing like as awesome as The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, though. What’s the moral of the story? Well, could be that the books that define us are stuck on a pedestal and there’s nothing to do about it. There’s the observation that some authors are more suited to one voice than another. Or maybe it’s just that there weren’t any dragons and it’s just a fatal flaw.

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One response to “Review and Retrospective: The Raven Ring, by Patricia C. Wrede

  1. Didn’t I lend you The Raven Ring in college? Guess not. Maybe you never mentioned that you hadn’t read it.

    I should say that I found it much younger than you did, and it’s STILL my favorite of Wrede’s adult work. (Though I very much like The Seven Towers, too.)

    About femininity and shallowness: may I suggest the cousin as a counter-example? I don’t remember his name. The one with the talent. I’d say that his interest in fashion/fashionability is also shorthand for “shallow.” So it’s not JUST a girl thing. Also, if I recall correctly, in Dealing With Dragons, that other princess whose name may start with A, the nice one, has a certain degree of interest in girl stuff.

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