Revisiting: Lament by Maggie Stiefvater

Books of Faerie, book 1; published in 2008; 325 pages.  ★★★☆☆

“You have to trust yourself.  You don’t need someone else to tell you what to do.”
Maybe I did.  Maybe I wasn’t ready for the independence I’d wanted so badly.

Sixteen-year-old Deirdre Monaghan is a painfully shy but prodigiously gifted musician. She’s about to find out she’s also a cloverhand—one who can see faeries. Deirdre finds herself infatuated with a mysterious boy who enters her ordinary suburban life, seemingly out of thin air. Trouble is, the enigmatic and gorgeous Luke turns out to be a gallowglass—a soulless faerie assassin. An equally hunky—and equally dangerous—dark faerie soldier named Aodhan is also stalking Deirdre. Sworn enemies, Luke and Aodhan each have a deadly assignment from the Faerie Queen. Namely, kill Deirdre before her music captures the attention of the Fae and threatens the Queen’s sovereignty. Caught in the crossfire with Deirdre is James, her wisecracking but loyal best friend. Deirdre had been wishing her life weren’t so dull, but getting trapped in the middle of a centuries-old faerie war isn’t exactly what she had in mind . . .
(From Goodreads)

This year, Maggie Stiefvater published The Raven King, the fourth and final book in her Raven Cycle series.  It was spectacular, and I was left with the sense that in the Raven Cycle, Stiefvater had really come into her own.  That made me wonder, because I remembered being dazzled by her debut, Lament – just how much has changed about her writing in the last eight years?

The answer is:  not the core, but quite a lot.

There’s something really cool about going back to a debut novel when you’re familiar with more of an author’s body of work, because every writer worth their salt gets better over time, but you can see the seeds of what they’ll become in what they first put out.  Lament has some of what I think of as Stiefvater’s hallmarks – her way of writing the fantastical so that it feels real and solid, her subtle touch, her understanding of just how far something can be pushed before it becomes creepy and unsettling.  Her version of Faerie beauty, for instance, isn’t dazzling: it’s so intense that it becomes weird and uncomfortable and otherworldly.  She has… a subtle touch, overall.  It comes out in how she draws characters and settings, too:  she picks out just the right details to make things feel real, without over-cluttering her descriptions.  It’s like an artist’s sketch with just a hint of color added to bring it to life.

It’s that subtlety, I think, that made this book stand out at a time when I was reading a lot of YA paranormal romance.  Lament is clearly a product of that subgenre, in a way that the Raven Cycle books aren’t:  there’s a girl who’s secretly special, an instant attraction to her otherworldly love interest, and a love triangle (though it isn’t a major part of the plot).  The prose voice also feels more… conventional, for lack of a better term, less stylized.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means the book doesn’t feel quite as unique and different as Stiefvater’s later works.

Character-wise, Lament avoids some – but not all – of the stereotypes of young adult paranormal romance.  Dierdre is a pretty standard loner type, but her family history is realistic and complicated (her mother has been shaped by vicious sibling rivalry and a miscarriage), and she’s got a wry tone that I enjoyed.  James, her best friend, is a delight, and I loved their mutual support and his sense of humor:

“When did you get so smart?”
He tapped his forehead.  “Brain transplant.  They put in a whale’s.  I’m passing all my classes with my eyes closed now, but I just an’t get over this craving for krill.”  He shrugged.  “And I feel sorry for the whale that got my brain.  Probably swimming around Florida now trying to catch glimpses of girls in bikinis.”

Luke, the main love interest, cleaves pretty close to your standard doomed immortal hot guy.  He’s got some genuine tragedy going on, and Stiefvater does it pretty well, but I’ve seen too many variations on this to find him particularly interesting.  By contrast there’s Sara, Dierdre’s coworker, who at first seems like she’ll be the archetype of ‘bitchy airheaded popular girl’, but who seems almost to be fighting her way out of that box.  Unfortunately, her pagetime for most of the book is associated with Dierdre reflecting on how she’s not like other girls, so Sara doesn’t get to shine until near the end of the story.

Many readers find Stiefvater’s books slowly paced, and that’s definitely the case here – the plot unfolds gradually and seems to meander for quite a while before it comes to a crescendo at the end.  That’s not to everyone’s taste, but I found that it was perfect for Dierdre’s internal coming-of-age struggle.  She seeks freedom and control over her own life; at the same time, she faces an antagonist who represents what Dierdre could become if she makes the wrong choices.  Thematically, Lament is about realizing the power a person has to shape their future, and the responsibility that comes with that determination.  That went completely over my head when I read it as a teen, and it has me wondering what else I missed in the YA that I read in middle and high school.

Going into this reread, I was a little worried – I always am – that Lament wouldn’t live up to what I remembered of it, but to my great relief it pretty much did.  It’s still not my favorite of Stiefvater’s work, but that says more about how much she’s grown since then than it does about this book.  It was a lovely debut, and still a solid and enjoyable read.



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