I’ve been anticipating this new release from Maggie Stiefvater for over a year, though, truthfully, I’ve been anticipating it since I learned that a creature named Maggie Stiefvater existed on this plane of being. I fell in love with her writing when I was an angsty middle schooler who preferred monsters to people, and though I’ve adjusted my feelings about people enough to make interaction plausible, I have not for one moment stopped believing in the magic of her work, and this novel really proves that somehow, with time, the best things can, in fact, get better.
I’ll gush about her other works later this month when I get around to an author profile, but I’ll just say this about her work: it’s magic, it’s emotion, it’s the human heart split open on a book page. I don’t know how she does it, really, but I always come away from her novels feeling light and distinctly human, even if the journey to the end was dark and full of strange nightmare monsters that would eat me whole. This new book, a stand-alone, is no exception to the majesty that is Maggie.
So this novel takes place far and away from her typical scene of the crime. We abandon our snowy forests, moody beaches, and mysterious meadows for the wide open bleakness of a Colorado desert — and that desert knows we’re here. The desert, in Maggie-fashion, becomes as present and active a character as any of the human ones.
This strange cold desert does not care if you live or die in it, but [Pete] fell for it anyway. He had not known before that a place could feel so raw and so close to the surface. HIs weak heart felt the danger but could not resist. (p 21)
The desert, which was not given to sympathy or sentiment, was nonetheless moved, and for the first time in a long time, it loved someone back. (p 23)
I am drawn to these passages in particular, which not only craft the vividness of the magic in this tale, but also display the exceptional craft of writing that I’ve come to so adore in Stiefvater’s work. Truly, I read the novels as much for the craft (how she puts together sentences, they way she tells us things, the way her paragraphs unfold) as I do for the story. Those sentences really give me chills!
The story takes place in rural and deserted Colorado in the 1960s around a ramshackle town where a family of miracle workers has set up camp. This family, the Sorias, have the magical ability to bring a person’s darkness to the surface. What happens when that darkness is made manifest is entirely up to the person, and certainly none of the Soria’s concern. They have stout rules, for their own protection, to keep away from those who have active miracles manifesting. But, as we’ve learned with Maggie, where there are rules to be broken, there are people to break them.
In the Soria family, we are first introduced to the younger members: Beatriz, Daniel, and Joaquin. We are then introduced to two miracle-seekers: Tony and Pete. And over the course of the novel, we meet the older members of the Soria family as well as those unfortunate souls who, unable or unwilling to defeat their darkness, are trapped in Bicho Raro indefinitely. Maggie uses a really creative method of introducing us to these characters, in which she tells us something they want (to be famous, to stop dreaming of long-legged laughing birds, gold teeth) and something they fear (dying alone, ruining a family, people watching him eat, death by cat smothering). Some of these deep dark secrets are strange, some are funny, some are earnest — we learn a lot about these people in these confessions.
I’ll admit that these characters, besides Pete and maybe Tony, aren’t my favorite of Stiefvater’s creation, but I’m comparing them to the characters in the Raven Cycle, who not only have four novels to unfold but also are my favorite characters in nearly any series. I feel that Beatriz is a little distant and I struggled to connect to her, and Daniel, the current and active saint, held the same kind of reverence and seriousness that tends to make religious types distant and inhuman. Joaquin was my favorite of the trio, but I felt that he didn’t get enough page time. The rest of the Sorias were nearly unlikeable and the rules about the pilgrims and Sorais interacting kept many of those characters from unfolding for me. Pete was charming and soft, which I love in a character, and Tony was funny and charismatic, which I also like. We get to connect a lot with Pete in the moving scenes where he stands in the desert, or when he’s working in Bicho Raro. He’s the most vivid and complex character to me, and I simply adore him.
By far the strongest element of the novel was its atmosphere. Between the miracles, the desert, and the darkness, the novel was moody and entrancing and vivid. Again, Maggie displayed her expertise in world building, and I found myself so sucked into Bicho Raro that I devoured the book in one night. I like that this novel is a stand-alone, since she spent so much time with the Gangsey in the Raven Cycle, but I wouldn’t complain for a few more irreverent sunsets in the Colorado desert. This novel really turned on my wanderlust and I found myself interested in traveling to the West for the first time in my life.
On a final note, I want to share what Maggie herself said about the poignancy of this novel. It’s a story about conquering inner darkness, as well as about learning when we should fight alone, and when we should recruit a secondhand. I found this notion forward in the novel, but not beat-you-over-the-head-with-a-metaphor strong. Struggling with mental illness myself, and especially vulnerable at the time I read the novel, it inspired a lot of soul-searching which, if I can be so presumptuous as to self-analyze, spurred me on to my current stability and improved relationships with others. I’ll write more about mental illness and books one day, but for now, I’ll leave you with Maggie’s own two-cents about it. Starting the novel in 2015, she writes on her Tumblr that she originally had a much darker draft:
Then the world turned into the world that we see today, and I no longer wanted to write about darkness and the ruts we fall into. I discovered that I wanted to instead write about light and hope and what it takes to solve ourselves. I wanted to take the amorphous change that I hoped to see in the world and in myself and my friends and make it concrete. I want to believe we can know ourselves. And so that’s what I wrote.
Be sure to pick up this novel, even if you don’t usually like Stiefvater’s work. It’s enough of a distance from her other stuff for you to like if you didn’t like the Raven Cycle or the Shiver series, but is also, I think, really typical of Maggie’s skill and style.
Have you read this novel yet? What did you think?