Series Review: Gemma Doyle by Libba Bray

Series Review: Gemma Doyle by Libba BrayA Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Series: Gemma Doyle #1
Published by Delacorte BFYR on March 22, 2005
Genres: Historical, Paranormal
Pages: 403
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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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?

Way, way back in 2008 when I was little more than a teen, I was just getting into YA, which was at the start of its boom post Twilight. Among other things, I read A Great and Terrible Beauty, because it was a buzzy bestseller and also the cover had a corset. I stopped there, however, because the book bored me to tears at the time. Now, having been a really big fan of some of Bray’s work since (Beauty Queens & The Diviners), I’m determined to read this series in full, because I want to make sure I didn’t miss any of her brilliance.

Bray has very much grown as an author since her debut novel. It’s been over a decade since she wrote A Great and Terrible Beauty, and that shows in some places. Though I enjoyed it much more now than I did nigh 10 years ago, it’s still very much a slow-paced book. A Great and Terrible Beauty runs heavily to the historical and has pacing more like in classics than what YA tends to. Remember, at the time, YA was just becoming a thing, so there weren’t that many set conventions yet.

Plot-wise, it’s not my favorite. Secret society type stuff has never really been my jam, even if it’s a bunch of girls with magic. To me, it’s like “wouldn’t it be more fun if everyone had magic?”, but that’s me. The characterization isn’t that strong, with everyone being fairly flat in this first book aside from Gemma and Felicity who are somewhat developed. The plot really feels like something I’ve read before (and not because I’ve literally read this book before) and doesn’t set my world on fire with originality.

There’s a lot of potential in the characters, I think, but I’m not sure if it will come to fruition. Kartik could be a fantastic character, but he spends all of this book issuing dire warnings and starring in Gemma’s erotic dreams and doing nothing else. Hopefully Bray develops the “gypsies” more later in the series, because right now that rep is very much problematic. Also, I hope that I’m not imagining the romantic chemistry between Gemma and Felicity, but I suspect that if there was a bisexual love triangle in a series from the late 2000s, I would have heard about it.

It was interesting to revisit this one, but I can certainly see why I dropped it like it was hot back in 2008. But hey, it’s got some classic mean girl gang action, if that’s your jam.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

Series Review: Gemma Doyle by Libba BrayRebel Angels by Libba Bray
Series: Gemma Doyle #2
Published by Ember on December 26, 2006
Genres: Paranormal, Historical
Pages: 548
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Ah, Christmas! Gemma Doyle is looking forward to a holiday from Spence Academy, spending time with her friends in the city, attending ritzy balls, and on a somber note, tending to her ailing father. As she prepares to ring in the New Year, 1896, a handsome young man, Lord Denby, has set his sights on Gemma, or so it seems. Yet amidst the distractions of London, Gemma’s visions intensify–visions of three girls dressed in white, to whom something horrific has happened, something only the realms can explain...

The lure is strong, and before long, Gemma, Felicity, and Ann are turning flowers into butterflies in the enchanted world of the realms that Gemma alone can bring them to. To the girls’ great joy, their beloved Pippa is there as well, eager to complete their circle of friendship.

But all is not well in the realms–or out. The mysterious Kartik has reappeared, telling Gemma she must find the Temple and bind the magic, else great disaster will befall her. Gemma’s willing to do his intrusive bidding, despite the dangers it brings, for it means she will meet up with her mother’s greatest friend–and now her foe, Circe. Until Circe is destroyed, Gemma cannot live out her destiny. But finding Circe proves a most perilous task.

Rebel Angels was such a struggle. It too me over a month to get through it. I’m 50 books ahead of a book-a-day challenge, but finishing this book took me an age. In no way is Rebel Angels actually bad, but the pacing is glacial because very little actually happens.

I was absolutely determined to get all the way through this series, but SPOILER ALERT I DNFed book three about 200 pages in (out of 820). Bray’s a massively talented author (I think she does the most glorious writing of settings and atmosphere especially), with a range from dark historical novels to hilarious satires. Because of how much I love some of her later works, I really wanted to make it through her debut series, but, man, I just can’t do it.

The writing, setting, and the Gothicness are all brilliantly done. However, there’s so little forward motion in the plot; Gemma spends most of her time actively avoiding making choices (especially in book three). There’s a massive twist at the end of Rebel Angels, which is pretty much the only point where there’s active plot, but I’d known that was coming from early on in book one. While there’s beautiful craft here, I couldn’t help being bored. This series could have lost half its length and really had something.

If I felt an attachment to the characters, the slow pacing wouldn’t have mattered. Unfortunately, I’ve never really bonded with any of the cast. The one I like best is Kartik, but he’s barely developed at all. Over the course of the 1150 pages of Gemma Doyle I read, Gemma has hardly changed, aside from the very beginning of book one when her mom dies and she’s sent to Spence. Felicity and Ann remain the same as well. The only characters who have had dynamic character arcs are Pippa and Kartik, but both largely change because circumstances have forced them to: View Spoiler ».

The world building is a bit squidgy too, in that I’m not sure what the overarching goal of the series is, aside from “defeat Circe and do something with the magic” and that’s just not hugely motivating. In almost 2000 pages of series, there’s very little romance. And View Spoiler ». Gemma and Felicity absolutely should have been the ship. Forever salty at that missed opportunity.

Rebel Angels was early in the first wave of YA post-Twilight‘s success. YA was still figuring out what it was generally going to be. I’d imagine it would be very different if Bray wrote the same concept now. They’re not bad but you need more patience than I have.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:


2 responses to “Series Review: Gemma Doyle by Libba Bray”

  1. Nori says:

    Interesting review. I loved the first book way back in the day. But, based on this review, I’m not sure I’d have the same love for it now. At the time, I was craving strong (possibly magically strong) female characters. I was always a character reader, so lack of plot didn’t bother me. And I think I was dealing with my own mean girl dramas while I read it, so it felt personal. But, since we have a lot of YA books like that now, I’m not sure I’d respond in the same positive way I once did. I also love Bray’s other books and even refer to her as my favorite author. I’ll probably eventually re-read these, but not any time soon -now. I also loved book 2. But, I was very angry with book 3. Good choice to stop reading it.
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    • Christina Franke says:

      Back in the day, there just wasn’t as much of a selection. And I think certain things, like what you hated about the ending would absolutely not happen precisely the same way. She addresses it in the questions at the end of the book, but like STILL NO. DO NOT DO. Those books just need to be half the length or actually have plot. And character development. I totally get why people would like them, but they are just so not for me, since I’m iffy on Gothic lit anyway, for exactly this reason lol.

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