***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Ms. Stiefvater lost a bit of organizational steam in this installment, which doesn't advance the overall four-book story enough, cramming what little action there is into the very last pages.
Where's the plot, Maggie? While Blue Lily has all of the same wonderful qualities that I loved in The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves--namely, moments of beautiful language, tons of witty banter, and meaningful interpersonal relationships--it's just plain missing a clear narrative arc. Laura James of the blog "Love is Not a Triangle" found these two tweets by Ms. Stiefvater, which I think hint at the problem:
"I suspect my preference for not finishing a book rather than skimming is because I read for prose & character, not for plot." (Maggie Stiefvater, Twitter, October 14, 2014.)
"I don't care what happens in a book; I care why it happens." (Ibid.)
These sentiments are fine for her taste as a reader, but great books need prose, character, and plot. Many people have given Blue Lily, Lily Blue a pass in the plot department because it's part of a "cycle," but I believe each book in a series should stand somewhat on its own, and this one felt a bit like a meandering Act Three in a four-act play. Had Ms. Stiefvater's manuscript been a standalone, it would either not have sold or it would have been ruthlessly edited to have a cohesive arc. All along, the Raven Cycle has been plagued with loose threads that readers have good-naturedly ignored, knowing that all will eventually be revealed, but this is the first book to be missing a clear story. The best you can say is this: Maura was missing at the beginning; Maura is found at the end. To be fair, there are also incremental advances in each character's quest (except for poor Noah, whose role in this installment is to be possessed by the ley line at random moments), but it all happens with no architecture.
Here are ten things that happen in Blue Lily, Lily Blue that do not a story arc make:
1. We start out with Colin Greenmantle taking over the Defense Against the Dark Arts Class--oops, I mean Latin class--and Blue's mother trapped in an underground cave in a sort of time vortex. Greenmantle is the former (evil) employer of hit-man Mr. Gray, and is still after the Graywarren (which is not a thing, but is a boy, Ronan).
2. Colin has brought his wife, Piper, along on his search and she turns out to be noticeably more remorseless than he is, and fully invested in the project (although we never learn why).
3. Malory flies over from the UK, in one of the most pointless physical introductions of a character ever. It seems that Ms. Stiefvater doesn't really know what to do with him, now that she has flown him across the Pond, and so she puts him in Gansey's SUV and has him roam around investigating the ley line in ways we never hear about later. The service dog feels like a way of "painting character" rather than really giving him character. We learn that he's magical, too: he can sense the auras of the people around him (Blue's aura is blue), and when he's in a crowd, that awareness is overwhelming and causes him anxiety.
4. There are many more instances of the ley line messing with Gansey's mind, introducing the sensation of hordes of bees or hornets or wasps (buzzing in his ears, wings brushing his face).
5. We learn that Ronan's little brother looks a lot like his mom and is an airhead because he's also a dream creature, fabricated by Ronan, in fact, and Ronan is determined to save him from her fate by being able to pull them into the real world with a powerful little globe of magic that will undoubtedly become pivotal in the fourth book.
6. Blue pines for Gansey, Gansey pines for Blue. They fake-kiss and surreptitiously hold hands and have regular nighttime accidental phone calls and it's all pretty sweet.
7. We learn that Blue's face is woven (painted?) multiple times on an ancient Welsh banner, and she's depicted with blood-red hands (red hands means something important in the lore, but now I've forgotten).
8. Adam sues for emancipation from his dad and has to face him in court, and is surprised that Blue and his Raven boyfriends show up to support him. This is the book in which Adam is learning to accept help without feeling like he's a loser who will be indebted to them. (Hence, we see him try to enter the state park alone without enough cash, and he grumbles about how Gansey would have paid and made him feel miserable. But the second time he tries to enter, he accepts Blue's $5 contribution without any self-loathing.)
9. A local man named Jesse Dittley owns a cursed cave that has killed his father, grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfather. Don't get too attached to Jesse Dittley, even though he's lovable. After all, we're told right up front that he's a redshirt, because Blue remembers his name from the night she was in the cemetery recording the names of the dead. (Which reminds me: I want to go back to that scene in The Raven Boys to see how she could have thought he was a woman ("Jessie"), given that his voice is described as being so deep and booming.)
10. In the end: Persephone dies. Maura is found, along with Buttercup, Blue's dad, who is an ancient Welsh soldier guarding Glyndwr. Jesse dies trying to defend the cave from Piper and her two caricature cronies. Blue's fame-hungry Aunt Neve shows up in the cave and with Piper's help wakes the third sleeper who should not be awakened.
New characters are caricatures. Side characters are an area of weakness in this novel, and the way they are caricatures may be endemic in the series. Remember how superficially fleshed-out Kavinsky was in The Dream Thieves? Other than our core group of characters--Gansey, Blue, Adam, Noah, Ronan, Mr. Gray, and the women of 300 Fox Way--the secondary characters are colorful but not terribly real. Colin and Piper, for example, have a fun hate-love repartee, and are given personal tics that make them "unique" (think: Colin's love of cheese and crackers), but as one reviewer on goodreads hilariously remarked, "I felt almost as if I was dealing with Boris and Natasha and their latest dastardly plot against Moose and Squirrel." Malory is given a dog and a snobby attitude about tea (British cliche, much?) which makes him colorful but not real to me. Of all the new characters, Jesse Dittley felt the most real to me, and yet I knew from the moment we met him that he was disposable.
The hand of the author. This is the first book in the series that occasionally shows Ms. Stiefvater's planning. For instance, I can see that she wanted Adam to make strides in his acceptance of love and help. So she sends him to the state park alone, with not enough cash, so that he can think about (and resent) how Gansey would have stepped in to pay the parking fee. Thus, this event feels like it's there to set up the future scenes in which 1. Blue helps pay for the entry fee and Adam graciously accepts it, and 2. Gansey and friends show up at his emancipation trial and Gansey uses his political clout to help Adam's cause. Yet it seemed that the author worried about the scene feeling entirely pointless to the readers before they reach #1 and #2, so she also gives him a fleeting vision of Colin Greenmantle (perhaps) arriving at the state park with ley-line surveying equipment. Unfortunately, this last vision itself isn't very helpful to the plot either, other than showing that the ley line can instill visions, and that Adam is receptive to visions, so we're left feeling like this whole state park scene has been filler. Later, we realize it was a "set-up" to show Adam's growth.
Malory, and Henry Cheng. Just what was the point of forcing the readers to meet Malory? Was it that Ms. Stiefvater (via Gansey) had referred to him often enough that she thought she'd be derelict in her duty not to make him real to us? Or will his physical presence be important in the fourth book--will we all travel to the UK for the end of the adventure? If the latter, why not just meet him then? The fact that I'm wondering about his importance just shows how unsatisfying these loose threads can be when the book is not a standalone. For now Malory the person (rather than Malory, the faceless long-distance research associate of Gansey) feels pointless to us. Similarly, Henry Cheng, the boy who wants Gansey to sign his petition, is both too present and not important enough in this installment. If I search the Internet, I find evidence that Ms. Stiefvater has told her fans Henry will appear in Book Four. But should I have to look that up? Shouldn't he pull his own weight in this book? Without that advanced knowledge he seems to be there simply to provide a venue for the falling construction brick pile that doesn't kill Adam.
My prediction is still on track. I'm glad that my prediction still seems to be coming true: that Gansey is some sort of incarnation of Glyndwr, the "sleeping" king. Blue Lily, Lily Blue makes me think (although I'm much less sure about this) that Blue might be some sort of incarnation of Glyndwr's wife, and that (in a soul-seeks-soul way), they are drawn to each other for that reason. Perhaps Glyndwr's wife was even called Jane.
Anyway, I'm still on board, Maggie. And I'm truly enjoying the ride. Bring on Book Four.