A blurb on the inside flap of The Sweet Far Thing about author Libba Bray states that she “has never lived in the Victorian era, is not British, and has no superpowers,” though you wouldn't know it based on the strength of her writing and the intricately crafted, Victorian world of her young adult series which includes the novels A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and the aforementioned The Sweet Far Thing.
Bray's series is a kind of Harry Potter meets The Da Vinci Code. Spence Academy for Young Ladies (which series heroine Gemma Doyle attends throughout the trilogy) is much more than just a finishing school replete with classes in French and etiquette. It's also a cover for a secret society known as the Order, an organization of powerful women with access to a magical universe known as the Realms. Gemma is the chosen one and heir to all the powers the Order has to offer.
My fascination with Young Adult fiction has never really left me and even though I'm now in college, I'm just as likely to pick up something cute and cheerful-looking off the YA shelf rather than some ponderous tome crafted for my edification and scholarship. Most YA lit, whether I like to admit it or not, veers toward the frivolous and much of what I pick up, I forget as soon as I'm done reading.
In that sense, Libba Bray's trilogy is a step out of the YA mold. Its thought-provoking themes make it just as suitable for an adult audience as its intended young readers. I frequently found myself mulling over each installment's thought-provoking insights about life and human nature long after I'd stopped reading. The sheer length of each book also feels geared toward an older audience: the first book, A Great and Terrible Beauty is the lightweight of the trilogy at 403 pages. The Sweet Far Thing weighs in at a whopping 819.
The series exists in an alternative reality where magic and reality overlap, each contributing something to the other. Bray constructs an entirely believable world of spooky, British boarding schools, high society, and dysfunctional families. She combines this with a magical universe that bleeds over into the real world, while operating according to its own strict rules. Both universes are equally constricting in their own way, and Gemma has to learn to play by the rules of each before she can figure out how to break them.
Gemma Doyle makes an intriguing protagonist. In a world defined by beauty and manners, she is neither strikingly beautiful, nor particularly refined. She has a loyal circle of friends, but prefers to keep to herself. Her only real talent is telling it like it is, which gets her into trouble in her passive-aggressive circle of rich women and snobby girls.
Raised in British India, Gemma is English without having any idea of what that means. When she arrives in Britain for the first time in her teen years after the sudden death of her mother, she feels utterly alone.
In many ways, loneliness and the search for belonging are the main themes of the series. Some of Gemma's close friends are social outcasts including the Indian Kartik and poor, scholarship student Ann. But even Gemma's wealthy, beautiful friends are lonely in their own ways. The beautiful Pippa is an epileptic who must marry quickly so that she can be protected and her condition hushed up. The ferocious devotion that Felicity feels for her Admiral father hides a dark secret and domestic tragedy.
One of the things I liked best about the series was its honest assessment of the experience of girlhood. Too many novels with female protagonists try turn girls into the little angels they most definitely are not. Here, Gemma's classmates at Spence are the same catty, cruel, bitchy creatures most of us remember from our own childhoods and adolescence. I felt that this helped me identify with Gemma and her friends even though her world is so very different from my own.
I found this trilogy engaging and fairly pulsing with action. The back-and-forth between Victorian England and the magical world of the Realms means that the reader is never bored. The stress of Gemma's dilemmas is palpable as she is confronted with opposition from all sides: from mystical magical brethren known as the Rakshana, her own dowager grandmother, the wealthy Victorian aristocracy, her teachers, her friends, and even the Order itself.