***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Fans will be highly satisfied with this ending, and much of The Raven King is beautiful, smart, and engaging, but in some ways this final installment got away from Ms. Stiefvater, with a touch of bloat, some dropped threads, introduction of a previously unknown villain (for lack of a better word) and rushed copyediting.
The good: a band of friends who are in love with each other; a believable, languid southern setting; characters who follow their passions; playful language that makes you laugh out loud; several scenes with exciting action; a powerful, budding gay relationship; a sense that magic is real.
The less good: the introduction of characters who are there to get killed off; said characters being somewhat cartoon-like; convenient removal of characters who are no longer necessary to the author; an unwieldy plot that Ms. Stiefvater barely wrangles into submission; a sense that the author had a notion of where the series was going, but no detailed route laid out for herself; the belated introduction of the real magical problem that needs solving; lost threads and repeated words that make it seem the author/editor team barely made their deadline.
The ending. I'm not sure I followed the ending. I caught the general sense of how the resolution worked, but not the specifics: Cabeswater gives its "life" as the sacrifice that will bring Gansey back. I admit that I was confused about Noah's final death, and about the sudden description of circular time in the last quarter of this novel. Cabeswater's "death" almost seems like the cousin to a temporal time-travel paradox. (Ronan dreamed the forest into existence; it gave its life to save Gansey; but Gansey had already given his life to save Cabeswater and the world...from a demon that traveled to our world through Cabeswater?) I think Ms. Stiefvater tries to explain all this by telling us that what Ronan brought forward already existed somewhere, in a different form: Opal speaks a language that's not Latin or English, for example, but a third language even Ronan doesn't know; and Artemis told Blue that his ancient form was not actually a tree. We're also told that Cabeswater's natural state isn't really a forest at all, further adding to the notion that it pre-dates Ronan's dreaming. Gansey has déja vu, and feels time slipping--though both of these symptoms feel new to this installment, which seems a bit unfair to the reader. (It's true that he was characterized as seeming to be both young and old in past books.) Finally, by not tying all the threads, it almost seemed that Ms. Stiefvater left room for future adventures. For instance, Ronan finds an ancient Camaro steering wheel that he somehow knows is not from past adventures but from a future one. (How he can tell the difference isn't explained. Is it because all the other ancient steering wheels would have been destroyed with the unmaking of Cabeswater?) And Mr. Gray is off on his own quest of sorts.
Bullet points of things that troubled me:
--Something about Piper's death befuddled me. For a long time I didn't believe that she was truly a living human being after her resurrection, so I was surprised that she could be felled by a gunshot. Silly, I suppose. But more important is the sense that Piper is yet another character who exists to be killed. We see her strained relationship with her dad, and we get a hint that she has a deeper motivation--a desire, maybe, because of her domineering dad and husband, to succeed independently in a competitive, gangster-like field--but it's not explored enough for us to understand it. She comes off as flippant, power-hungry, strong, but somewhat clueless. She doesn't quite rise to the status of an important secondary character in terms of substance, though she gets a lot of screen time and is the catalyst for the climax of the entire series.
--What happened to the demon and the purchasers-of-magical-things after Piper was shot? I think we see a sudden scene change, after Seondeok yells "Call me!" to Mr. Gray as everyone disperses. This is all we get in the Gray Man's story line: he is going to work to disband the mobster ring that traffics in magical goods (but the "how" seems a little nebulous, and even Seondeok points that out). In a plotting sense, the "Call me" line felt thrown in to tie up that thread for readers.
--What happened to Ronan's dream attempts at creating a safety-skin to protect Gansey from bees? Didn't he pull a working skin out on the last try?
--Come to think of it, did the threat of a sting turn out to be a red herring throughout four books? Was RoboBee an attempt to make us think there was a thematic purpose to the bees all along, when they are simply a dead end? Similarly, is that why the demon was wasp-shaped (to tie in symbolically with the whole Gansey-is-allergic thread)? Are we meant to think Gansey's literal death by stinging insects represents, metaphorically, the death of the world at the hands of this waspish demon? Or did causality go the other way: did Ms. Stiefvater make the demon a wasp to explain Gansey's obsession with them?
--Were the Laumonier triplets really necessary? Like Malory, they felt like caricatures. Even with their own, dedicated chapters they failed to feel fully developed.
--Orla is sent away in what seems to be an authorial move of expediency, to have one less character to deal with. Similarly, Matthew and Declan are whisked to safety.
--Devices introduced in previous novels are missing: for example the orb that allowed Ronan to wake his mother after his father's death. (We do see the translating box again.)
--Noah gets several paragraphs at the end to explain his confusing "circling through time," but we still don't understand...or I didn't. And he says this is his final time watching Gansey die--but do we understand the repetition and why it's ending? Why would Noah have a final death now, if Gansey has died before and this is cyclical?
-The Welsh King, Glyndwr is actually dead, not sleeping. It makes Gansey's quest through three and a half books feel a bit pointless, other than drawing the four kids together so that they can eventually face and defeat the demon.
--Does the demon have motivation, other than pure evil? What does it intend to do after Cabeswater is unmade? Where did it come from?
--Did the word "demon" even appear in any of the previous books?
The big picture. If you step back and look at the series as a whole, you get the strong feeling that Ms. Stiefvater wrote it by the seat of her pants, and had trouble shaping all the clever ideas into a coherent arc. We never do get a bee sting, dangled so prominently throughout the previous books, we don't get a sleeping king, who was for so long the point of Gansey's quest, there is a belated introduction of a demon who turns out to be the real problem the teens need to solve. (The form of the demon is incredibly cool, though.) And Henry Cheng becomes important to the plot...or maybe not. Did he need to be added as the "fifth friend?" Does he actually exist so that his mother can exist, to give Mr. Gray an ally? These issues made it feel as though the author was fishing for a way to conclude the story, but couldn't figure out how to fashion the ending from the material she had already put in previous books. I suspect, given that the release date was moved back, this was actually the case--she was wrangling until the last moment.
Nitpicking. Ms. Stiefvater's prose is exceptionally good in the series (and particularly the moods it evokes), but this book was not edited or copyedited as well as usual. There is some bloat, with scenes that are unimportant (like Ronan's attempt to dream up a skin for Gansey, Gansey's mother's fundraiser at the school, Gansey's bribe of the headmaster to graduate Ronan--a graduation that doesn't even come to pass for him). The repetition of individual words made it seem that everyone was rushed to get the book to publication--editors and copyeditors included. Some nitpicking examples:
"Ronan flickered briefly back into consciousness, his eyes awash with black, a rain of flickering pebbles scattering from his hand and skidding to a mucky stop...."
"The easy rocking of [the door] indicated that it would open easily...."
"Gansey felt the feeling of time slipping one last time...."
"Adam's attention focused sharply at this. Grief sharpened his tone to a knife's edge..."
"She lifted her head, and the light through the window made a perfect square of light on her glasses."
"The engine roared to life. Or rather, the car roared to life. Who knew what was even making the sound. Blue made a ridiculous whooping sound of glee."
"There was a cave opening beneath the house. Not a grand, aboveground opening like the cave they'd entered in Cabeswater. And not the sheltered hole-in-the-ground entrance they'd used to enter the cavern Gwenllian had been buried in. This was a wet, wide-open maw of an opening, all collapsed ramps of dirt spread over concrete bones and bits of furniture, the ground splitting and part of a basement falling into the resulting pit."
In sum: Surprisingly, I found myself reading this last installment a bit dutifully, without the same joy as before. I love the language, and I love the characters, so I was willing to finish the ride. It was a big beast to corral, and Ms. Stiefvater was only partly successful in creating an inevitable arc from all the clever pieces in the first three installments. But the series is a triumph of effort, and has much to recommend it. It's smart, it's different, and the young protagonists have passions, projects, healthy friendships, and complexity.