Monthly Book Review: The Gemma Doyle Trilogy

Before getting into the review, here’s today’s quote. What do you think? True or False?

Apparently reading begets more reading, because rather than read the one new book I promised this month, I’ve read three: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing, all part of the same trilogy by Libba Bray. Before I get to what I thought about the books, here are a few things I’ve realized since beginning this challenge of mine:

  1. I can definitely make time to read one book a month.
  2. Not only can I make time to read one book a month, but if I set my mind to it I can make time to read three books in a week.
  3. I can also make time during that week for writing, as I wrote more in the days after I read these books than I have in a long while. Reading does in fact inspire writing! Who knew? ;)

Now back to the books themselves. Here’s the synopsis of A Great and Terrible Beauty from www.libbabray.com:

It’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?

First of all, I actually did not realize these were young adult books before I read them. A Great and Terrible Beauty was recommended to me, and I simply procured a copy from the library before doing any research on the content. That being said, though I intended to try to read books geared towards my age range, the genre doesn’t bother me. I may be a 25 year old woman with two kids, but I’ve always enjoyed the YA genre, and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life. Call me young at heart.

Like any work, this trilogy has its likable side and its unlikable side (at least in my opinion). We’ll start with the latter, just so we can end on a positive note.

The Unlikable:

  • Poor Reliability of Characters. I understand that people don’t work in black and white. Nobody is all good or all bad, but some mixture of the two. I have no problem with this being displayed in writing because it reflects reality. However, I do take issue when the characters are so back and forth that you have no idea who to trust. There was an air of mystery throughout this series, particularly in the second and third books. The identity of certain villains in these two remain unknown until the very end–another element that I didn’t mind. But as I read, I found myself wishing that there was one person–just ONE–that I knew for certain was on the main character’s (MC’s) side. Perhaps this was intentional on the author’s part, but to me, that got old pretty quickly. When reading a book, we should be able to learn which characters to trust, rather than just being told who to trust. Imagine if, in the Harry Potter series, every character had been as difficult to figure out as Severus Snape (to a milder degree if course, because there can be only one Severus Snape). That’s what this trilogy was like.
  • Stagnancy of Supporting Characters. The MC is the most affected by internal change throughout the books. However, while the reader does see changes occur in the other characters, these changes all seem lumped together in the last few chapters of the trilogy. Apart from this, the friends and family of the MC stay largely the same. I would have preferred to have seen a gradual growth process throughout the whole of the trilogy.
  • Unnecessary Sexualization. Get ready; I’m about to reveal what a “prude” I am. These books aren’t even close to being erotica. There are probably 6-8 scenes in the entire trilogy that include sexual ideas and language: mostly little fantasies or visions taking place in the MC’s head. I’ll be 100% honest and say that any type of sex in books usually makes me uncomfortable, so my perspective may be skewed. But the problem that I had here wasn’t that sexual content existed, but rather that it was unnecessary. Typically I see authors use sex as a way to show characters growing closer romantically instead of showing that growth through nonsexual interaction (which is a whole ‘nother issue), but in this case there wasn’t even a lack of closeness apart from sex. The characters’ attraction to one another and their increasing closeness was apparent without any help from the sexual fantasy department. In my opinion, the books themselves benefited very little from the inclusion of these scenes, and the scenes added virtually nothing to the plot, the characters or the reader’s understanding of those characters. If you want to include sexually charged scenes in your books, then feel free to do it. But like any other element, make it have purpose. Make it mean something or affect something. Otherwise, it’s unnecessary.

The Likable:

  • Well-written. In spite of the fact that there were aspects of these books that I didn’t like, they were all well-written. Libba Bray has a unique style that captures the reader’s attention and holds interest. Also, so much of her figurative language was on point. She made comparisons I never would have thought of, but were accurate and beautiful all at once. I give her props for that!
  • Themes of Women’s Rights and Disadvantages. Taking place from the viewpoint of a young woman in the late 1800’s, this trilogy includes several allusions towards suffragettes and issues facing women in that time period, including (low) cultural expectations, lack of basic freedoms, and oppression by a patriarchal system. Many of these issues still resonate in the modern world, making these allusions even more thought-provoking. Libba Bray executed this seamlessly and artfully, driving home the point without seeming like she was trying to preach. She tackled a heavy issue without once standing on a soapbox or turning her writings into political drivel, which I appreciate and applaud.
  • Believable Characters: Yes, as I said earlier, I did not like that the characters seemed unreliable and untrustworthy. That being said, however, I do feel the characters were realistic, even if I wasn’t sure what to make of them. No character was one-note. From the heroine to the villains, every person had good and bad notes, which reflects reality.
  • Unique. I’ve read a lot of books, but I’ve never read one quite like this one. I don’t want to give too much away to people who haven’t read it and may want to. All I’ll say is that I appreciated Bray’s unique take on magic, friendship, and the time period.

The Final Verdict:

All of the above are just my opinions of course, which is why I’ve labeled the sections “The Unlikable” and “The Likable” rather than “Bad” and “Good.” For my conclusion, I look to Oscar Wilde. His assertion in today’s quote is that only a book you’d read over and over again is worth reading at all. Would I read this trilogy again? In all honesty, probably not. But does that mean I felt reading it was a waste of time? No! I enjoyed the books and I’m glad I read them. They spurred me to write and offered inspiration, plus they made me think. Though I wouldn’t say I loved them, I did like them and I appreciated them for what they were. If you enjoy YA and fantasy, I would certainly recommend the Gemma Doyle Trilogy to you. And keep reading! Read books even if you might never read them again. You can almost always learn something. Sorry, Mister Wilde, but I think you’re a bit off on this one.

Today’s Prompt: Write a short story based on a book you’ve read over and over again. Use the same characters and setting, but create your own adventure.

Happy Writing!

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