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For better or for worse, when we read books, certain passages and images nestle into our brains. Protagonists make little homes in our heads. Whether we’re lying in bed at 2 a.m. or brushing our teeth in the morning, these literary actors start making noise at random, quiet moments, demanding attention and consideration. Julie Kagawa’s “The Iron Raven” is one such novel whose dramatic (and at times cartoony) imagery nestled itself into my brain. 

If you’re looking for a contemplative reflection on mistakes made and people hurt, “The Iron Raven” is not for you. The novel is indulgent, forgoing gritty, moral questions to rehash old character drama. However, within its levity lies its strength. The novel excels at escapist, dramatic storytelling. It’s the perfect post-finals read. Days after reading, the image of a shadowy figure appearing in a tent doorway has yet to evacuate my brain. 

Kagawa is not a household name in the same way Stephenie Meyer is, but she derives from the same literary genius. While you might not recognize her name, she was an early 2010s mainstay in teen fiction. In “The Iron Raven,” her newest novel, Kagawa returns to her original, most profitable “Iron Fey” series, becoming the newest addition to the trend of YA revisitations. Like Marie Lu (the “Legend” series) and Suzanne Collins (“The Hunger Games”), Kagawa returns to the world she lovingly crafted in 2010. 

Her original series houses seven books and a smattering of short stories. The first trilogy introduced her interpretation of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts from Scottish folklore to stage her action-adventure, three-pointed love story. The main character, Megan, is the daughter of King Oberon, the regent of the powerful Summer Court. Though raised in the human world, Megan is pulled into the fantastical and dangerous world of the Fey. Megan’s two love interests are her childhood friend and protector, Puck, and Ash, the mysterious ice prince of the Winter Court.

The fourth book follows Ash, the second love interest. The fifth through seventh books are narrated by Megan’s younger brother Ethan as he navigates the fantasy world. Now, in 2021, “The Iron Raven” picks up to explore the final point of the initial love triangle Puck.

In “The Iron Raven,” the fantasy fairy world is once again under threat. Puck must face his own jealousy, demons and past to save his homeland. Threaded throughout the book are cameos from old protagonists and popular characters from the preceding novels.

As a whole, the novel remains enjoyable but plays it safe. “The Iron Raven” is intended to both stand alone and also be enjoyed by existing fans. It cannot, however, stand alone without the aid of its predecessors. While intriguing, the plot of the latest installment relies too heavily on context from prior novels and depends on an initial investment in Puck as a character. Taken in isolation, “The Iron Raven” is a lackluster first novel, focused more on previously established character dynamics than charting a new, exciting course. However, when taken in context, “The Iron Raven” is a strong addition to Kagawa’s series. 

Additionally, it seems that the novel is a marked improvement from earlier works. Kagawa returns to the craft as a more mature author and the writing itself is tighter and the characters more nuanced. The first novel in the “Iron Fey” series is barely readable, prone to cringey characterizations of high schoolers as either “poms” (shallow cheerleaders), “jocks” or “weirdos.” “The Iron Raven” blessedly cuts back on the more juvenile world view of previous novels. Despite “I’m horny” bits being made one too many times after a character develops horns and oblique sexual harassment-adjacent jokes, the inclusions are relatively painless.

Part of the appeal of the “Iron Fey” series is its willingness to indulge the reader. The novel makes no pretense and exists honestly as what it is: A series of novels wherein ordinary people enter a strange new world and are forever changed by those encounters. Though published in 2021, “The Iron Raven” has echoes of a halcyon 2010s where books could be technically bad and wonderfully wacky, dramatic and lighthearted.

Daily Books Beat Editor Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at