Book review: “The Sweet Far Thing” by Libba Bray

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The Sweet Far Thing
by Libba Bray


My usual process, when reading a trilogy, is to read the first book first, the second book second, and the last book last. Nevertheless, when I found an audiobook edition of this third novel in the Gemma Doyle trilogy, I decided not to wait until I had read A Great and Terrible Beauty and The Rebel Angels. Luckily, the third book summarizes enough of what happened in the previous two that it stands on its own. The downside is that I’ll already know how the series ends before I start the first two books. The upside is that I got to listen to the amazing Josephine Bailey channeling all of the characters with her versatile voice, as convincing with male characters as female, and effortlessly slipping between any number of English, Scottish, Indian, and American accents, from East End urchins to Maggie Smithesque schoolmarms. I was going to write that Ms. Bailey should perform the entire cast of an animated film sometime—but with vocal talent like hers, who needs pictures?

Central to this book and to the trilogy named for her is a young lady named Gemma Doyle, who could be described as exactly what Harry Potter would be if he were a girl attending not Hogwarts but a Victorian girls’ finishing school called Spence. Instead of both her parents being murdered by a dark lord, Gemma lost her mother only, to a dark lady who later turned up in disguise as one of Gemma’s teachers at Spence. So she still has a father (whose consumptive condition is evident to the reader long before Gemma guesses it), a grandmother (whose ambition is to see Gemma curtsy daintily to Queen Victoria), and even an older brother (who is somewhat of a prat).

Also like Harry, Gemma has two friends who share in her magical adventures: the unconventional Felicity, whose inheritance hangs by a thread and is her only hope of escaping the life her abusive father has planned out for her; and the unassertive Anne, who unlike the other Spence girls is destined not for a debutante season but for a thankless career as a nanny, at the beck and call of her obnoxious nouveau riche relatives. Felicity dreams of being a bohemian artist in Paris; Anne, of finding fame on the dramatic stage. Gemma, for reasons best learned by reading the first two books in the trilogy, personally holds All the Magic; and her dream, after helping her friends achieve theirs and then restoring the magic to the Realms to which it belongs, is to be able to chart her own course in life.

Luckily, before the story collapses under the weight of its feminist baggage, things start happening that makes all this even more complicated. Gemma figures out how to open a way into the Realms, but she is not so successful at getting the tribes of magical beings to form an alliance before she returns the magic. On the contrary, they are so suspicious of each other and resentful of Gemma’s hesitation that open conflict breaks out. Meanwhile, the groups that previously safeguarded the magic, working on our world’s side of the gateway, demand it back and are willing to threaten everyone Gemma cares about. And at the same time, the dark forces of the Winterlands are gathering strength to take all the power for themselves in a plan involving Gemma as the victim of a great sacrifice. That can’t be good. And nor can the fact that the only person whose advice Gemma trusts is the villain from the previous books, while a school chum who was lost forever in the Realms exerts an increasingly sinister influence on Felicity.

To say more would be to spoil too much of an adventure in which Gemma’s mistakes teach her heartbreaking lessons about the moral responsibility that comes with great power. Let it be enough to know that Gemma experiences love and loss, strange visions and creepy mysteries, daring capers and horrors in the night, battles in our world between undead ghouls and inanimate objects come to life, and a great final battle to decide the fate of the magic, the Realms, and our world as well. So, pretty much what you would expect from Harry Potter in a corset.