Before you read on, I feel that I must warn you: this review is incredibly biased; magnanimously positively biased, because Maggie Stiefvater is one of my favourite authors, and I honestly feel that she could do no wrong. This book could have been objectively bad, and I still would have given it a full-star review.
Stiefvater’s writing is, I think, best described as magically honest. Most well-known for The Raven Cycle (2012-2016) and The Scorpio Races (2011), she firmly fits within the genre of Young Adult (‘YA’) magical realism bordering on fantasy, with a penchant for exploring the more enchanted elements of Irish and Scottish history. As Stiefvater writes in the Author’s Note at the end of her newest novel, Bravely, she is, alongside being a writer, “also a bagpiper and harpist who was raised in the peculiar pan-Celtic mixing bowl that is American Scottish-Irish diaspora, and I wanted to put as much of that culture in as I could”. These elements ring true throughout this mesmerising novel.
Stiefvater was commissioned to write Bravely by Disney Books, setting the story of the novel several years after the close of one of Disney and Pixar’s most successful films about a “non-princess princess”, the independent and rebellious Merida of DunBroch, in Brave (2012).
The publication of Bravely comes at the ten-year anniversary of the film’s debut, which falls in line with the magic of the story. Since negotiating a truce with her mother where they refuse to let anger spurn fights between them (leading to one of them turning into a bear), Merida has travelled all over Scotland in pursuit of becoming someone, or something. Otherwise, very little has changed; DunBroch has stagnated, people have fallen into time-worn ways, and magic is hibernating. The family DunBroch is safe but also a danger to themselves.
By accident, Merida finds herself making a bargain with two aged gods to save her family: the god of ruin, and the god of creation; the earnest Feradach and the wily old Cailleach. Merida can change her family and herself, or they must leave this earth to make room for new growth. The gods must ensure the balance.
The novel follows the family DunBroch over four seasons as Merida aims to inspire revolution and stop sluggishness and apathy in its tracks, or see DunBroch ruined forever. With family members in tow, Merida undertakes a series of epic journeys to other Scottish kingdoms, and learns more about the world than she had in her previous year of travelling. She has done so much and yet has stayed so much the same. As Stiefvater writes, “Some storms make a lot of noise but move no rooftops.”
Stiefvater’s writing always manages to tug on my heart-strings; the magic that is steeply grounded in medieval history is believable and thought-provoking. The central conflict – Merida must save her family and her home by changing them, but does she like what it means for DunBroch to be changed? – is something of a spell the reader is put under, because we are forced to question what that kind of change could mean for ourselves.
Being a YA novel, Bravely is easy to read and fast-paced. At times, I thought that perhaps it tried to span too large a timeline for its three-hundred-and-sixty-odd pages, but by the last page, I realised I didn’t want it to end; I didn’t know how to bear this story coming to a close.
Stiefvater writes in a poetic and humorous kind of prose about the existential dilemmas of life, localising them to the mystifying and confusing era of life that is a young woman’s emergence into adulthood – something I am far too familiar with for my own taste. It is not only about changing the world and changing the self, but also about the different kinds of love and what it means to be known. Stiefvater spoon-feeds these difficult themes to the reader, and by the end you’ll be grateful for it.
Grapey Bookclub Review: 5/5 stars