Book: “Rebel Angels” by LIbba Bray
Publishing Info: Ember, December 2006
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: 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.
Spoilers for “A Great and Terrible Beauty”
Review: Oof, this review, it’s going to be tough. It seems that “Rebel Angels” is widely believed to be the stronger book of the first two in Bray’s “Gemma Doyle” series. But man, I had some problems with this one.
But first, the good. There is no questioning Bray’s strength as a writer. The dialogue is always excellent, the descriptions of Victorian London are spot on. She includes many historical details that keep the atmosphere rich and poignant, and she’s mastered writing her action set pieces, something that was perhaps lacking in the first book. Further, the stakes have been raised in this book. Gemma, Felicity, and Anne have experienced real hardship with the death of their friend Pippa. And Circe, Gemma’s mother’s murderer, seems to circle ever nearer throughout this story. I enjoyed the expansion of both the “real world” setting, moving the story out from the walls of Spence Academy and into the social workings of London itself, as well as that of the Realms. We get to move beyond the perfectly lovely Garden and begin to see that now that the magic is released, things aren’t quite right in this magical land. Further, they might not have been right even before when the Order was in power.
So, there you go. This is a long book (a mark against it, really, since I think Bray could have used an editor to help trim this book up in places), but the writing and general plotting of the story are strong and got me through it. And considering my list of complaints to come, getting through it in a timely manner is actually a big mark in…something’s favor.
First off, the characters. As I said, there were some serious happenings in the first book. Pippa died. Felicity (and Anne in following her) did some truly awful things in the pursuit of power. It was made clear that the Realms weren’t all pretty flowers and magical powers with no strings attached. With this all, characters needed to grow! Other than mourning Pippa’s death, the threesome of girls quickly falls into the exact same pattern of behavior they exhibited in the first book as if they had learned absolutely nothing.
Felicity continues to bully Gemma into making bad decisions with the Realms, behaving as if it is still the free-for-all they had first supposed it to be, as if she hadn’t sacrificed a deer bare-handed in the previous book only to come this close to becoming a dark denizen herself. She routinely advises Gemma to ignore warnings and plays hot and cold with her friendship. You’d think that after coming through together what was experienced in the first book there would be a real foundation of friendship. Instead, we continue to see examples of a “mean girl” who only cares for Gemma when it is convenient. This doesn’t speak well to Gemma’s character either for tolerating such one-sided friendships (Anne has similar issues, siding with Felicity in all of her worst moments and never giving anything back to Gemma to justify Gemma’s continued loyalty).
Further, about half way through the story Bray introduces a dark backstory for Felicity with regards to her family. I have mixed feelings on this as I do think in many ways it was handled very well. But it was also used as a magic wand to somehow excuse Felicity’s behavior, which I don’t agree with. Further, after showing up briefly, there are many implications that are never fully addressed, which leaves the whole situation feeling all too close to a “plot convenience” which doesn’t sit well at all.
Anne has changed not at all. If anything, her character’s uselessness is doubled down upon. She has gained no bravery, no sense of self worth, and has actually actively stepped back into bad behaviors (self harm) that much time was spent on overcoming in the first book. Why was our time wasted then if she wasn’t going to improve at all here? And in this book, I can’t think of a single time when she truly aided the group. She was nothing more than dead weight throughout the entire story, and has now been given almost every negative stereotype a character like her can have, and gained none of the the strengths one would expect from a character moving beyond and through these set backs. Halfway through the book she ends up in a dangerous situation, and I was openly rooting for her to just be written out of the book. Alas, no.
And Gemma. The problems with Gemma aren’t even character problems. For the most part, I still very much like her as a leading lady. Unlike the other two, she has more sides to her that fully flesh her out and make her character arc interesting to follow. And while she does seem to grow throughout this book, there is the same problem from the previous to this: she has learned nothing! She naively believes everything that is told to her by every single person, even when she has explicitly been warned against this. Told not to trust anyone in the Realms? She immediately trusts EVERY SINGLE PERSON SHE MEETS. Oh, here’s a girl who was in the Order before and has made herself “mad” to avoid Cerci? Let’s NOT believe anything she has to say. It’s endlessly frustrating.
What’s more, the story opens with the reader witnessing a scene that explicitly makes it clear that a few characters are set against Gemma from the start. But then we have to go through an entire book watching her naively work with these characters. So not only is Gemma herself frustratingly naive to follow, making all of the wrong decisions for no good reason, but the reader is already set ahead of her, knowing more than she does from the start and yet still stuck in her ignorance. For any canny reader, the “twists” could be spotted a mile away which just makes it all the more frustrating watching Gemma and Co. struggle on. When she finally does realize things, there isn’t any breath of relief. You’re already 100 pages past that stage and simply want to smack her for not getting it earlier. Her following morose is all the more infuriating.
And lastly, the third member of the love triangle (you know it’s bad when the presence of a love triangle hasn’t even made the cut for my list of things to vent about) is essentially a date rapist and THIS IS NEVER ADDRESSED. He tries to get Gemma away from the others at a ball, and when this doesn’t work, he gets her drunk on absinthe, and then lures her to a remote part of the house and begins seducing her. They’re only interrupted by one of her visions which scares him out of it. And then the whole thing is forgotten, other than Gemma being embarrassed by her own behavior mid-vision!
There is zero discussion about this man’s intentions, the wrongness of his drugging her and attempting to seduce her, or anything. He continues to be a romantic interest! For a book, and author, that makes a big deal about talking about feminist and societal issues, I honestly couldn’t believe what I was reading. I kept waiting for the admonitions to role in, for Gemma to realize what a scumbag this guy was, for anything! There was nothing. It was left as if nothing had happened, he had done no wrong, and Gemma’s only concern was the worry that her own behavior would put him off. There’s no excuse for this. For young women reading this book, they are left with a scene like this presented as ordinary, ok, and not worth revisiting other than potentially shaming the girl caught up in it for getting too drunk and putting off the potential husband.
So, it’s clear I had a lot of feelings about this book. For as many complaints as I had, I do feel compelled to finish the series, if only to see where Bray ends up leaving her characters in the end. Again, a lot happened in this book and you’d expect some character growth to come out of it, for us to have new versions of the same characters in the next book. But I had that expectation for this book and was utterly disappointed, so I’m not holding out hope. My prediction is that they will all behave the same exact way for way too many pages. I guess we’ll find out.
Rating 4: Complete lack of character growth and some very irresponsible messages leave this book as a disappointment.
Find “Rebel Angels” at your library using WorldCat!
Previously Reviewed: “A Great and Terrible Beauty”