Sunday, 23 November 2014

Book Review: The Gemma Doyle trilogy

Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing
Author: Libba Bray
Year Published: 2003-2007
Genre: Young adult, supernatural, gothic, historical fiction

The Gemma Doyle trilogy is a supernatural Victorian boarding school story for young adults. That alone should tell you whether you want to read this series (for me the answer was, of course: hells yeah). There’s an indulgent, ‘comfort read’ quality about it despite its dark themes. While this normally would be fine for me, some of these themes weren’t your typical dramatic fantasy problems but rather actual real life issues. And that’s why I ultimately found the series problematic.

There are a number of seeming contradictions in the nature of the series itself, as if it is trying to be too many things at once. On the one hand, it's easy to luxuriate in the girly girl passages about the girls’ shopping expeditions and the social niceties of Victorian London – reminiscent of your Jane Austen type of stories, which the author references a number of times. On the other hand, there are plenty of gruesome ghostly things mentioned in the supernatural part. Then again, there are your ‘serious’ scenes describing family dysfunction, abject poverty and child sexual abuse – the latter of which I really wasn’t expecting in such a squishy sort of read.

There was so much going on that I felt that a number of these heavier themes shouldn’t have been included at all. Other than creating mood whiplash, I felt they weren’t given their proper dues. I kept thinking of the phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’, as each ‘problem’ rarely transcends the scene in which it’s mentioned. For example, Gemma spouts a lot of pretty and ~profound~ insights about her dysfunctional family, but only ever seems to think about them when she’s in their actual physical presence.

While Gemma describes problems – particularly the ‘ordinary’ real-world ones – and how horrific they are, we can’t disagree; at the same time though, they’re given so little attention that there’s almost a passive tolerance of them. In this regard, it was Gemma’s musings on child sexual abuse that really made me irrationally angry – she talks as if she knows all about it, but then she doesn’t seem too bothered about it in the next scene, nor does she ever do anything about it – to be fair, I don’t know what she could do in those cases, but nevertheless I felt it made her concerns seem ungenuine.

Despite it being 1895, the behaviours and voices of the heroines are very, very modern. When the girls have ‘radical’ thoughts, it doesn’t feel very radical at all as they haven’t actually moved very far from who they already are. As for Gemma, well, her decision at the very end came as a surprise to me – her thoughts were so varied and unfocused throughout the series that it was surprising she even had that goal in mind: she never once mentioned it during the entire series.

Now, despite all my groaning, there’s still a lot you can enjoy in this series. I don’t doubt that a lot of people would be attracted to the gothic setting of the series, and there’s an indulgent pillowy quality you can get lost in – indeed, despite my misgivings I read all three books pretty quickly. This is the sort of series you let wash over you, without trying to keep track or think too much about, lest you spot the problems. There isn’t a lot of plot to be honest – it gets worse in the second and third books, where there’s more and more telling instead of showing, and the tale expands in breadth rather than depth. It seemed to unravel as things went on, and became a bit of a chore to read in the end. Be warned also that the ending isn’t exactly a happy one.

I did like that the main love interest was Indian, but I’m in two minds as to whether this series provides a positive example of non-white characters. There was surprisingly more sensuality than I would’ve anticipated, particularly given how simple the language is, so I’d probably say it’s suitable for those aged 13+. I was a little disappointed in the character development too – some of Gemma and Kartik’s relationship is retconned in the third book, and I was surprised to hear Felicity, Pippa and Ann described as Gemma’s “best friends” in Rebel Angels after their uneasy and bullying-tinged interactions in A Great and Terrible Beauty, as well as the fact that none of them seemed to actually like each other, except for Felicity and Pippa. I’m not sure what it says about me, or the book, but I found Felicity and Ann to be a lot more likeable and interesting than our heroine Gemma.

So in conclusion, I had a number of issues with this series – namely plot, character development and the handling of themes. It’s also very faux Victorian, if that’s something that will bother you. What’s left to recommend it then? Well, there’s an addictive quality in the writing, and an attractiveness in the mood and setting. There are also moments of great tenderness and poignancy, though these instances were too few and far in between. I don’t regret reading this series, but I doubt I’ll read it again.

Alex’s Rating: 2.5/5

No comments:

Post a Comment