My library number for THE SWEET FAR THING, the final book in Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy, is almost up, and I’m excited.
I was actually pretty negative about the first book, A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY, while reading it; I dismissed it to a friend as “less than subtle.” Bray has a tendency, particularly in that first book, to lapse into using her characters as mouthpieces for abstract feminist musings:
[Felicity] walks out toward them, an apparition in white and blue velvet, her head held high as they stare in awe at her, the goddess. I don’t yet know what power feels like. But this is surely what it looks like, and I think I’m beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and teachers and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It’s not that they want to protect us; it’s that they fear us.
It’s unfortunate that Bray and her editors didn’t weed that stuff out, because the story rests on some concrete detail about what it was like to be a girl in Victorian England that’s quite affecting. One character’s seeming powerlessness in the face of her debt-ridden family’s desperation to marry her off “well” moved me more than my snidest side thought it ought.
In rarer ways, too, Bray ditches the facile romanticization of this era common to portrayals aimed at teenage girls; she does a nice job of describing what it actually might have been like to have to wear a corset. Fourteen-year-olds can have a bit more realism in their fantasies after reading the series (which many of them now have).
I should also say that, while the “less than subtle” epithet very much applies here too, I quite enjoyed the heavy lesbian just-this-side-of-subtext. Particularly in a mainstream bestseller teen novel.
The most unusual thing about the books, though, is probably the way they incorporate social class in a way that’s more than just envying (or idolizing) the wealthy or condescending to the noble poor.
The character Ann is a working-class girl in a school for rich girls, her education paid for by the cousin for whom she’ll be obliged to work as a governess. Bray makes Ann really work for me as a character because she portrays both the bitterness and insecurity that makes the other characters sometimes loathe her, and Ann’s real pain that makes her behave that way. You’re utterly exasperated and you root for her at the same time. Awesome.
This side of the series is more developed in the second book, REBEL ANGELS. One scene that stood out to me takes place in a rich guy’s house, when he and his mother bring Gemma in to see some paintings. There’s a maid who’s been cleaning the fireplace and has to get up and stand off to the side, weary, and wait for however long they feel like talking before she can get back to cleaning and maybe eventually go to bed.
It’s totally not the point of the scene, but it’s there, unlike cod knows how many books where you’re invited to reflect on how nice it would be to have servants, not what it might have been like to be one. Like the realism of the corsets, Bray’s awareness of class makes the world she’s describing that much more real.
Most surprisingly to me, she even has the hero, Gemma, display some very realistic colonial racism in the second book — and get totally called out on it, by the character I have the greatest hopes for in the third book. If Bray develops his character instead of keeping him as just a foil for Gemma, I’m sold.
It’s a good thing that REBEL ANGELS had all these great touches, because it had some very serious problems too — mostly, that it made its main characters seem really dumb. There’s leaving clues for your readers (and, just like small children, I kind of enjoy cottoning on to the mystery, and for the same reason: it fools me into thinking I’m smart, rather than that I chose an obvious book) — and then there’s making your readers wait for the characters to catch up to where anyone literate enough to read the books has been marking time for two hundred pages.
And the worst part is, in REBEL ANGELS, it’s like the characters aren’t even trying. They’re supposedly trying to solve a mystery to stop this terrible monster who’s already killed people they know, but they spend at least a hundred pages hardly thinking about it while they traipse around London worrying about what balls they’ve been invited to.
Look, my powers of disbelief suspension are strong enough to hold up the freakin’ Golden Gate; it only would’ve taken a few lines from Bray to convey that the characters were desperately clinging to this trivial crap because they’re terrified and overwhelmed and don’t know how to stop the monster. I would’ve filled in the rest and been totally satisfied. But you have to throw me that bone, or our presumptive hero seems like a shallow idiot.
To cap it all off, the plot “twist” that everyone sees coming has the effect of undoing something I really liked about the first book: the way that our hero’s mistakes have had costs for people who didn’t deserve them.
You can see why I’m anticipating THE SWEET FAR THING, but also nervous. Let’s hope it lives up to the best of what I’m envisioning.