The Raven King by Nora Sakavic
“He was their family. They were his. They were worth every cut and bruise and scream.”
The Raven King, the second novel in the All for the Game trilogy by Nora Sakavic, was the sequel this series deserved and needed. There was not one moment where the novel slumped or drifted from its course, plot- or character-wise. The fast pace of the novel, and the abundance of amazing characters, assisted in progressing and developing the story to the point where I was glued to the page.
The novel picks up where The Foxhole Court concluded: A team-mate has died – or was potentially murdered – and the Foxes are desperately searching for answers and concerned over their fragile position in the NCAA. Despite the tragic death, the team might become stronger than ever if only they can work together as a team. The one person standing in the way of that is Andrew, and the only person who has ever had any success at lowering Andrew’s defenses and getting through to him, is Neil. But Andrew still doesn’t completely trust Neil, and he certainly doesn’t give away anything for free; and Neil can’t trust anyone but himself as he discovers important people from his criminal past are still after him. Not to mention, Neil has created a new enemy in Riko, the self-proclaimed Raven King, the captain of the Foxes’ rival Exy team. Riko is determined to discover Neil’s real identity and destroy everything Neil has worked so hard to gain – and the other Foxes are just collateral damage in Riko’s quest. Neil knows he won’t survive the year, but he’s slowly learning that running is no longer an option – he has to stand and fight, even if that means sacrificing himself along the way.
“I am a bad person trying very hard to be a good person.”
I was so impressed with The Raven King. It was a successful expansion into the Exy world and an incredible development to the first novel in the series. The best part of this novel is the character development. It wasn’t just the protagonist, Neil, who went through a significant growth; it was every single character. I don’t think I have come across a novel before that really focuses on such intense character dynamics. One of my new favourite characters is Renee, whose history and background story are finally detailed. Renee doesn’t pretend to be anything she is not; she is very aware of the person she used to be, and the despicable things she once did, and she always tries to be better than that and to help others however she can. In the first novel, I thought she was a soft and weak character, but in the second book she proves otherwise. She is such a sweet but strong character and I absolutely loved her interactions with Andrew, and the fact that the entire team is betting on whether or not they will become a couple. I live for these moments of hilarity.
“You can’t cut down someone who’s already in the gutter.”
I was very glad to see another side to Aaron’s personality. In The Foxhole Court, Aaron takes a backseat to the immediate plot and all we really know about him is that he is Andrew’s estranged twin brother and that he despises Exy. In The Raven King, his backstory is revealed, as well as the explanation towards his reserved, and somewhat terrible, behaviour. Aaron is a mysterious character in that the reader doesn’t really know his true purpose in the plot beyond sitting and stewing on the outskirts. I’m so glad more of his true personality is revealed as well as his strange dynamic with his brother. There is a scene where Aaron and Andrew’s weird relationship culminates in the climax of the plot and it is so heartbreaking and gut-wrenching to read, I had to stop reading for a good ten minutes before I could continue. I really hope Aaron and Andrew can sort their differences out in the final novel. It’s clear they love each other and will do anything for one another, but something is keeping them apart and preventing them from having a healthy relationship.
Another two characters I adored were Matt and Dan. They were fantastic and I loved their growing friendship with Neil. It is so obvious how much they care about Neil: they never force him to reveal any more than he is comfortable with and they are fiercely protective of him, especially when it comes to Andrew and his group of “monsters.” I was so excited that Dan worked as a stripper in order to pay for college, and the fact that she is still a strong, badass woman who became captain of a sports team, and an aggressive one at that.
Neil thought about Renee’s bruised knuckles, Dan’s fierce spirit, and Allison holding her ground on the court a week after [blank’s] death. He thought about his mother standing unflinching in the face of his father’s violent anger and her ruthlessly leaving bodies in their wake. He felt compelled to say, “Some of the strongest people I’ve known are women.”
Kevin and Nicky were not as involved in the story, although they were still there. The reader knows almost everything about Kevin and Nicky due to the first novel, but their interactions with the other characters in the book were still fantastic, mainly with Andrew. Kevin and Andrew’s friendship is reasonable, but it was still puzzling. Nicky just shined as per usual. His personality is always happy and welcoming, and the moments where he is gutted and wretched promptly broke my heart. I have so much respect for Nicky in that he completely uprooted his life in Germany in order to travel to America and take care of his cousins. He is so selfless and sweet; if he doesn’t get a happy ending in the final novel, I will be writing a strongly-worded letter to Nora Sakavic.
Out of all the characters in this novel, Neil is the one who went through the greatest amount of development. In the first novel, at any sign of difficulty or potential danger, Neil would have disappeared and no one would have seen him again. Now, he creates such strong relationships with his teammates that he knows he will never be able to leave them. In fact, he actively goes out of his way to protect them. His development wasn’t rushed or forced, either; it occurred very naturally and is a testament to Sakavic’s excellent writing skills in that only 181 pages, a character can experience a complete and natural 180. It’s all in the little interactions: Neil telling Andrew his real name, Wymack asking Neil, “Are you okay?” and Neil finally responding, “No. No I’m not Coach” instead of his usual, “I’m fine,” and Neil finally willing to accept help from Matt and Dan. These scenes, while some of them occurred after devastating passages, were also so heart-warming to read. Good job Neil.
“Your parents are dead, you are not fine, and nothing is going to be okay. This is not news to you. But from now until May you are still Neil Josten and I am still the man who said he would keep you alive.”
I’ve been putting it off, but I finally have to talk about Andrew. Oh, Andrew. From a character I once detested, who willingly drugged people to get the truth out of them, who only comes off his pills for games, who is so psychotic, a deranged narcissist like Riko is terrified of him, he has suddenly become my absolute favourite character. Andrew is a paradox: we don’t know his true feelings about anything, as he is constantly wrapped in a haze of drugs; we don’t know what angers him; we don’t know what makes him happy; we don’t know why he treats his brother as he does; and we don’t know why he plays Exy when he doesn’t care about it. And then, Sakavic tells us. God damn you, woman. My heart broke into a thousand pieces when Andrew’s backstory is revealed. This poor boy has gone through so much, none of which is deserved. You don’t realise it in The Foxhole Court, but Andrew is a truly broken character. Andrew’s journey progresses so intensely and heartbreakingly, no one could possibly predict what happened to him years ago, and what occurs again. I was a sobbing mess during those scenes and it only served to make me adore Andrew even more. In fact, I am creating the official “Protection of Andrew Minyard Society.” This boy has gone through so much, I will be devastated if he doesn’t get the happy ending he deserves.
The worldbuilding in this novel is impeccable. Sakavic’s Exy universe just flourishes and evolves with each book. Exy feels so real I am honestly surprised it is not an actual sport. I wish it were so I could play it. It seems like so much fun, being a cross between rugby and lacrosse, just more dangerous. The plot was fast-paced and honestly so well done. The Foxes are gunning to prove themselves in the NCAA, but Riko has other plans. He has laid claim to Kevin and, most recently, Neil. Neil has taken on the role of mediator in trying to bring the Foxes together. As his friendships with the group develops, Neil really comes into his own and he understands what he will endure in order to protect those he cares about.
“Facing Riko like this went against everything his mother taught him. He’d been raised to run, to sacrifice everything and everyone to ensure his own survival. His mother had never given him ground to stand on. Maybe that was why he hadn’t been strong enough to save her in the end. A jumble of lies had nothing to fight for. But Neil Josten was a Fox. Andrew called this home; Nicky called him family. Neil wasn’t going to lose any of it.”
I enjoyed The Raven King so much more than the first novel in the trilogy. The Foxhole Court was wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but as the first book in the series, it mainly sets up the Exy world and gives a quick rundown of the characters. The Raven King goes even further to the point where I have fallen in love with these characters. The best novels are those that have an emotional impact on you, and that was definitely the case here.
I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that such a short book series has impacted me in such a large way. Everything about this book is perfection: the writing, the characterisation, the worldbuilding, the pacing, the dialogue and the dynamics between characters. It is very clear how much Sakavic loves her characters and the world she has created because it is evident throughout the entire novel. It is so touching when you can see how hard an author has worked on their novel – it comes across almost immediately.
The Raven King was an amazing sequel. I can’t wait for the third novel in the series. The Foxes need to beat Edgar Allen, Riko needs to be taken down, and all the wonderful Foxes need to achieve their happy ending.