The Gemma Doyle Trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, The Sweet Far Thing)

gemmadoyle1 By Libba Bray [Bray at LibraryThingBray at Amazon]

Gemma Doyle has lived her whole life in India, but when her mother is killed, her family returns to England, where Gemma is sent off to Spence Academy for Young Ladies. But Gemma can’t escape her grief, or the prophetic visions she’s suddenly privy to. With her friends Pippa, Felicity, and Ann, she discovers the realms, a magical world where they can be all the things their rigid Victorian society won’t allow them to be. But everyone wants power over the magic Gemma holds – the creatures of the realms, secret societies in the ordinary world, and her mother’s killer – and no one can be trusted.

I love boarding school stories, and I love Victoriana, and I love feisty redheaded heroines, so it was a fair bet I’d love this series. And sure enough, I did! Let’s take those items in reverse:

gemmadoyle2 1. Fiesty redheaded heroines: Gemma is a very strong protagonist. She’s definitely an Everygirl; while Pippa, Ann, and Felicity dwell in extremes, Gemma tends to be fairly middle-of-the-road, to the point that she has trouble naming her own hopes and fears. But rather than come off as bland, this comes off as very genuine; she’s a very believable teenage girl who is still trying to decide who she is and what she wants. Her emotions, too, are all very real: her grief over her mother’s death, her awakening sexuality, her complicated emotions towards her friends, her mentors, and her enemies. She works brilliantly as the centerpiece of the story, and it doesn’t hurt that once she does decide what she wants to do, she kicks ass doing it.

2. Victoriana: I loved the references tossed in there: Oscar Wilde being arrested for indecency, A Study in Scarlet, Girl’s Own stories. And I loved the sense of Victorianism that pervaded the whole thing, from Gemma’s growing up in India to her fear of being presented to the queen. But more than that, I loved that Bray didn’t just stick the Victorian Era in there as a backdrop that would allow fancy dresses and olde tyme-y talking. She uses the era, uses it to shape her characters’ hopes and fears. Everything Gemma and her friends feel and experience is set against Victorian mores; at every step they’re struggling against racism, classism, homophobia, and especially sexism, and Gemma’s forced to fight against those things while gradually coming to realize her own privilege. A major theme of the book – possibly the major theme – is the way the girls of Spence are trapped in this stultifying society, whether to be a tutor to bratty children like Ann, or married off like Pippa and Felicity, or simply powerless like Gemma. The girls’ struggles to escape their gilded cages are by turns heartbreaking and inspiring.

gemmadoyle2 3. Boarding school stories: Spence Academy itself is simply drenched in history, in secrets and tragedy. All the little descriptive bits that make it look so foreboding when Gemma arrives twist themselves into intricate little plot points, and while I wasn’t really very interested in the mythology of the realms, the story behind everything that happened in the past at Spence fascinated me. But beyond that, the setting allowed Bray to show a real variety of female characters and relationships. It’s a shame that books with mostly-female casts are rare enough to make me this excited over the Bray books, but they are, and I am. There are many, many female characters in the series, and even the minor ones aren’t clichés or easily categorized.

The heart of the series is Gemma’s friendship with Felicity, Ann, and Pippa, and this is done marvelously. They are not easy friendships. They are friendships full of resentment, of jealousy, of fear. They have all the insecurities of teenage friendship: am I the favorite, am I the least favorite, do they only like me because of what I have, can I tell my secrets, will I be understood? But beneath the petty (and unpetty) fights lies real loyalty and love, and that’s what makes the relationships compelling.

Speaking of compelling relationships, Gemma’s relationship with Kartik, her main interest, was also very well done. Kartik is totally dreamy and their romance was more of a page-turner to me than any YA romance I’ve read in a long time, but I also loved that she didn’t take any of his nonsense when he tried to dish it out early in the series, and I especially loved that, when faced with a possible betrayal by him, Gemma went right up to him and talked to him about it, rather than play elaborate wounded mind games. Healthy communication between teen lovers? Shocking but true!

My sole quibble about the series was that I think at least a hundred pages could’ve been comfortably cut from the last book. They were well-written pages, but Gemma’s isolation, confusion, and fear was endlessly rehashed to the point where suspense was lost and I got downright bored.

However, that quibble is not enough to put a damper on my enthusiasm. The Gemma Doyle Trilogy gets five cupcakes, and a nice Victorian cup of tea besides.

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    2 Responses to “The Gemma Doyle Trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, The Sweet Far Thing)”

    1. Michelle says:

      The books are great, of course, but I think it’s Libba Bray’s hilarious blogging that really hooked me on her writing. Check it out: http://libba-bray.livejournal.com/

    2. Madalyn says:

      Oh, these books were absolutely addictive! I’ve reread them so many times, and the first and second ones never get old (you’re right, the third one goes on way too long). I’ve gotten quite a few of my friends hooked on them, too.

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