Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Book review: The Sweet Far Thing

Faye L. Booth reviews The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray, published in hardback by Delacorte Press

Everyone has at least one ‘escapist’ book; one that allows them to lose themselves in a fantasy and perhaps return to a younger, less worldly age. For many people nowadays, the Harry Potter series provides that opportunity. For me, one such author is Libba Bray.

The Sweet Far Thing is the final instalment in Ms Bray’s historical fantasy trilogy for young adults, starring Gemma Doyle, Victorian teenager and hereditary sorceress. For those who are new to the trilogy, a quick précis – the series opens with Gemma living with her mother in India in the days of the British Empire. After her mother’s violent death, during which Gemma experiences the first of many unsettling visions, Gemma is returned to England to attend finishing school at the Spence Academy for Young Ladies, where she meets and befriends the beautiful, romantically-minded Pippa, headstrong admiral’s daughter Felicity and shy working class orphan Ann, who is attending the Academy on a scholarship in order to be trained as a governess for the children of her wealthy cousins. As well as dealing with the usual nightmarish politics of teenage girls and the lessons designed to shape them into future wives and mothers of the Empire, the four are drawn, via Gemma’s developing abilities, into the magical world of the Realms, and the lethal struggle for power dominating them.

By the time The Sweet Far Thing begins, Gemma’s class are in their final year at Spence. Gemma and Felicity are soon to have their season in London and be presented at court before Queen Victoria, while Ann will be despatched to a life of servitude, her natural talent for singing neglected. In the Realms, the race is on to destroy Gemma and seize her power, while Gemma’s ongoing attraction to Kartik, a former member of the magical brotherhood the Rakshana, is developing all the more strongly. In this final climactic episode of the trilogy, written in the classic five-act format of the tragedy, characters will be killed; begin relationships; ‘come out’; take charge of their destinies. Perceptions of good and evil will be challenged, and futures decided for the young women whose fates initially appeared so set in stone. For the readers who have been with Gemma et al since the first book, The Sweet Far Thing is likely to be an affecting read, especially towards the end, as the losses and gains of the battle for the Realms mount up.

I found myself smiling at quite a few scenes, particularly those in which the teenage protagonists’ characters are explored. Bray’s talent for creating likeably flawed personalities is clear, and the younger characters in particular are in most ways very believable. They do not conform to the ‘frigid Victorian’ stereotype held by many people nowadays, nor are they wise and responsible beyond their years; indeed, Gemma frequently makes errors of judgement the sort of which one would expect from a young girl still coming to terms with life, both in and outside of the magical Realms.

Her relationship with Kartik is not presented as the be-all-and-end-all of her existence, and while the ending of the story is far from ‘happily ever after’, there remains a strong sense of hope and possibility for the futures of the girls at the centre of the tale. I was especially pleased to see my favourite character from the entire series redeemed at least to a degree, as I considered her to be the best role model in the trilogy (still do, actually), and was somewhat perturbed by her being demonised in the second book.

As with the novel’s two predecessors, there were a few minor factors that made me wince a little, such as the strong liberalism frequently displayed by Gemma, which seems a touch anachronistic for a 19th Century girl with her relatively privileged background. In particular, the corset as a metaphor for the restrictive gender roles of the time is perhaps a little overused, as are the regular complaints about wearing the garment made by the girls: to the vast majority of Victorian women who could afford corsetry, the idea of going without would be as popular as the idea of going braless would be today – a tiny minority might well have done, but they would indeed be the minority.

Also, a ‘respectable’ institution like Spence kitting its charges out in bloomers for an afternoon’s cycling would almost certainly lead to complaints from horrified parents, too, as in the early 1890s such garments would still generally be viewed as unsuitable attire for a young woman, particularly among the relatively conservative upper classes who send their daughters to Spence. The phonetic spelling used for the speech of working class characters felt a little uncomfortable (“Wot’re you luvbirds whisp’rin ‘bout?”), although not without precedent, being a technique employed by Dickens and Hardy among others, and the portrayal of the character who comes out to her friends as a “Sapphist” occasionally veers predictably towards the classic ‘butch’ stereotype.

All the same, the book is a pleasurable and entertaining read, both for adults and for its target audience, many of whom may just be getting into historical fiction. Buy the trilogy for the bookish teenager in your life…or just read it yourself, of course.

Faye L. Booth is the author of Cover the Mirrors

Book One – A Great and Terrible Beauty
Book Two – Rebel Angels
Book Three – The Sweet Far Thing

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