Serena’s Review: “The Sweet, Far Thing”

While I make an effort to complete most books I read, every once in a while I come upon one  that I just can’t get through. When I find myself repeatedly putting down a book to the point that attempting to finish it is taking up weeks of my time, I sometimes come to the conclusion that a book is a book, not a life and death contract to read until completion. There are too many books in the world that I will never get to to spends days on end trying to finish a book that I already know will not be my cup of tea.

127459Book: “The Sweet, Far Thing” by Libba Bray

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, December 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: It has been a year of change since Gemma Doyle arrived at the foreboding Spence Academy. Her mother murdered, her father a laudanum addict, Gemma has relied on an unsuspected strength and has discovered an ability to travel to an enchanted world called the realms, where dark magic runs wild. Despite certain peril, Gemma has bound the magic to herself and forged unlikely new alliances.

Now, as Gemma approaches her London debut, the time has come to test these bonds. The Order – the mysterious group her mother was once part of – is grappling for control of the realms, as is the Rakshana. Spence’s burned East Wing is being rebuilt, but why now? Gemma and her friends see Pippa, but she is not the same. And their friendship faces its gravest trial as Gemma must decide once and for all what role she is meant for.

Previously Reviewed: “A Great and Terrible Beauty” and “Rebel Angels”

Review: As I said above, I try to push through most books, and those I can’t, I often choose not to review on this blog. After all, I rarely have much positive to say about the experience (and we do try to include positives in most of our reviews, even for lower rated ones), and…I didn’t finish the book! Can I really accurately speak to the book as a whole in a review? But since I’ve reviewed the previous two books in this trilogy, I didn’t want to leave the series hanging without a conclusion to my thoughts. So here they are.

The thing I most enjoyed about the first book was the juxtaposition of these young girls growing up in a very prim, restrained Victorian boarding school against a wild and mysterious magical backdrop made up of an organization of powerful women who have operated behind the scenes throughout history. Gemma and her friends are challenged to re-think their position in society, their own abilities, and the way they relate to each other and those around them. The magical world was unique and by no means “fluffy,” full of lurking danger and unknowns. By the end of the story, our main characters had learned that they did know all that much in the grand scheme of things, and perhaps there were more important things out there than petty, girl fights. They had lost a friend, discovered a new enemy, and seemingly grown closer, knowing that together they must face the challenges ahead.

The second book squandered all of this excellent set up, dialing back any growth the characters had gone through in the first book, making their decisions and thought processes confusing and frustrating. They still focused on the silly, bickered as if they had learned nothing, casually dismissed warnings, knowing full well the major consequences this type of behavior had lead to before, and generally behaved as if the first book had not happened, other than knowing that magic existed. Beyond this, the author introduced a terrible love triangle and some truly problematic scenes about consent.

So, with this second book as an example, I did not have high hopes going into the third. My only reassurance was that, after the events of the second book which were even more dire and traumatic than the first, there was no way that the author couldn’t address the growth and new outlook on the world that Gemma, Felicity and Anne must now have gained. How wrong I was.

I made it about a third of the way into the book before realizing that nothing had changed. Absolutely nothing. The girls were still caught up in petty nonsense, made decisions that made no sense, and behaved as if nothing had happened in the previous two books now that would influence the choices they made going forward. The author actively walked back on all progress that had been made in book two. I quickly realized that I was simply reading the same book over again.

Pippa was turning to the dark side? Nope, she’s still just there in the Realms, hanging out and making Gemma feel guilty for a decision that Pippa made herself back in book one. Gemma had decided to share the magic with everyone in the Realms? Nope, best to re-debate that decision AGAIN for huge chucks of this book,too. Kartik had decided to support Gemma and the girls? Nope, he’s distancing himself again and, of course, won’t tell Gemma why. Learned that when others much more experienced with the Realms warn you about something then you should really listen? Nope, Gemma will stop listening to others (when did she ever??) and maker her own choices!

It was truly incredible how neatly and quickly the author pulled back any and all progress that had been made in the last book and quickly seemed to start re-writing that book all over again. It was inexplicable to me. That last point, where Gemma once again refused to listen to warnings given to her by those in the Realms, was the point where I put down the book. Gemma does not read as a real person, or at least not one whom I could have any respect for at that point. Somehow she had learned nothing, and I’m not interested in reading another 700 pages about a character who is nothing more than a device for the author to indulge herself in a writing exercise that badly needed an editor.

I can’t speak to the end of the novel, but I’ve read a few reviews that further justify my decision to set it down. I won’t speak to these ending issues, as I didn’t technically get to them myself, but it doesn’t surprise me that the author ended up scrambling to pull things together and then missed the mark. How can you end a story when you haven’t really told a story? A story involves characters who learn, grown, and come out the other side as different people than they went in. That just didn’t happen in this trilogy.

Bray is an author with ideas, but she couldn’t write a single character arc for any of these girls. In a stand alone book (or the first in a series, like in this case), limited abilities with characterization might be passable. But it’s unacceptable for a trilogy. I’m having a hard time thinking of another trilogy that started as promising and then plummeted so steadily over the next two books.

Kate read only the first book in this series and liked it, as did I. For those out there in the same boat? Just stop there. Turns out you’ve already read books two and three as well in one go! Why waste the time re-reading that one again for another 1400 pages?

Rating: DNF

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sweet, Far Thing” is included on these Goodreads lists “Thickest Books Ever” and “Worst Ending.” Yes, I know those are negative lists, but that’s how I feel about this book and others seem to agree.

Find “The Sweet, Far Thing” at your library using Worldcat!

 

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