Monday, March 25, 2013

Schoolgirls Form Clique, Discover Other Realms

A Great and Terrible Beauty
I continue my quest to make a dent in my TBR pile, often with the assistance of the Chicago Public Library's extensive collection of e-books.  I've had A Great and Terrible Beauty on my shelf since 2006.  As often happens when it takes you more than six years to read a book, I don't think this is one that I would pick up nowadays.

It's a young adult book about four teenagers in a Victorian era finishing school who find that they can do magic.  The main character is Gemma, who I guess is fine, though "not handsome enough to tempt me" into wanting to read two more books about her life.  In fact, I decided to read this book mostly so that I could get it off my shelf as I had a feeling I wouldn't be continuing with the series.  This has been confirmed.

Gemma, then.  She feels a lot of guilt over the death of her mother, has a priggish older brother, and feels very awkward and out of place in boarding school because she grew up in India (a country she despised while she was there).  But then she finds other girls who also have Heavy Weights to bear (even though they aren't very nice) and they discover magic together and things seem to improve.

So, I admit that this book set up my back from the very first because of just how ridiculous the portrayal of India and Indians was.  The very first page starts like this:
"Please tell me that's not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening."
I am staring into the hissing face of a cobra.  A surprisingly pink tongue slithers in and out of a cruel mouth while an Indian man whose eyes are the blue of blindness inclines his head toward my mother and explains in Hindi that cobras make very good eating.
SERIOUSLY?!  Yes, because Indians eat cobras all the time and obviously, when you encounter a man with a snake on the street, you assume that he is offering to sell it to you for a meal.  I am surprised she didn't first describe him as charming it with a flute.  I am not even five sentences into the book and already I am thoroughly offended.

 And quite honestly, Libba Bray could have been outstanding from that point onward and I would probably still not forgive her.  But I don't think this book was for me.  The characters seemed very one-dimensional.  Gemma's brother is a supremely stereotypical Victorian male who thinks women shouldn't do anything but be ornaments.  Her roommate is a poor orphan who also happens to be ugly and have a stutter.  There's the cruel, beautiful girl that, for some reason, everyone wants to be friends with, and that Gemma stands up to when no one else will.  And all the girls spend a lot of time bemoaning their futures as Victorian women.  Which I get, as they always revolved around marriage and not making a fool of yourself and making sure your corset was tied tightly.  But also, I don't think that many teenagers would spend so much time thinking about how unfair it was.  I don't remember spending much time thinking about feminism when I was in high school, but perhaps I am an anomaly.

I think what originally appealed to me most about this book was that it was fantasy set in the Victorian era.  While this genre has recently exploded and we're filled to the gills with steampunk and other novels of the sort, I do think Libba Bray was one of the earlier authors to write in this vein.  So thanks to her for that!  But I just couldn't get over those first scenes in India, and the rest of the book didn't draw me in enough to make me want to continue with the series.  Perhaps if I had read this book right when I got it, I would have been swept away and pulled into the magic of it, but six years later, it wasn't for me.

22 comments:

  1. I really thought that I would love this book; I love boarding school stories and the fantastic elements inherently appealed, so it seemed like a terrific match. But I didn't click with it either. Periodically, I still pick up one of her others, but I haven't given one another go yet.

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    1. Well, I'm glad it wasn't just me, then!

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  2. Well put. I, too, was excited about the Victorian boarding school as well as the magic, but I found it just dragged, and the same things kept happening again and again. I read the whole series and would say that if you didn't like the first one, you're not missing anything at ALL in the rest.

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    1. Good to know - I have no plan to read the rest :-)

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  3. I was drawn to the same exact thing you were, though I initially thought for some reason it was TIME TRAVEL set in the Victorian era. So I was a bit disappointed to find it was just fantasy. Overall, though, I remember liking it, though reading your comments now, I can't exactly imagine why. I didn't even notice the things you took offense to, but I remember Gemma just being whiny. For some reason, I did want to continue the series...maybe it's because I wanted to know the rest of the story from its own historical standpoint (history of the school and such)....? Maybe? I don't even remember!

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    1. Yes, she was really whiny. I can understand why you'd finish the series if you start to know what happens, but I feel like this one ended ok for me without me needing to know the rest of it.

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  4. I wasn't a huge fan of this book and didn't read the sequels either, though I have to admit that back when I read it I missed a lot of problematic elements that really should have been obvious. I like to think I'm better at spotting those things now, but it's always a work in progress, especially when you're privileged in certain ways.

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    1. I assume you're talking about the first paragraph that so bothered me. I am probably just more sensitive to that because I'm Indian myself.

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  5. Yeah, I am gonna give this one pass after this

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  6. I would hazard a guess that I would have a similar reaction to this, as I've also had it on the TBR for many many years. There are several books on my list that I look back at and think, "I wanted to read that... why?" Although there are still a few gems on there too, from way back when. Tastes change, interests change. I keep things on the list just in case I change again.

    I think I will be more inclined to attempt Bray's Beauty Queens, though I've moved away from reading YA as much as I used to for some reason.

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    1. Yes, I have done the same - It isn't the genre that bothers me, though, it's very specific aspects of the books. I think I just pick my YA differently now.

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  7. I haven't read this, but I believe Jenny did and disliked it. From what I remember, it was one of her snarkier reviews.

    I appreciated what you had to say about those books that have been hanging around for ages that you wouldn't choose now. I'd like to get in the habit of reading books shortly after I get them, so that doesn't happen--and having over 100 unread books in the house doesn't help make it happen either!

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  8. Hahahaha, literally the only thing I remember about these books is that one of the characters turns out to be gay (that is a spoiler but like, you weren't going to read the sequels, right?), and the protagonist has a crush on a sexy gypsy. The story never interested me at all and I remember doing quite a bit of skimming.

    (And this from a girl who loves boarding school books THE BEST.)

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  9. I remember feeling like I saw that cover everywhere and was mildly interested in it, but YA has often been a miss for me lately. The excerpt you included was awful on so many levels. In the comments above, you said she was whiny, and I can get that vibe just from the brief bit you included.

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  10. I did like this when I read it years ago, but I really struggled with the follow up books, especially as it got my fantastical. I don't think that I would look twice at it now, as my reading tastes have definitely changed now. I have looked at a couple of other books by Bray but haven't actually read them. I think I am a bit wary now.

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  11. If the writing about India was all about Gemma's biased against it that would make sense, but if it's factually inaccurate... likewise a focus on not being happy about their roles as women works if the intention was to educate modern readers. However this does sound pretty stereotypical, and there for convenience.

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  12. I love the title of your post. I've read one Libba Bray book- Beauty Queens- and wasn't that impressed with it. I know she's very popular but I haven't been able to muster any enthusiasm for her since then to read more. Maybe I'll skip this one and try another.

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  13. Ok, that excerpt that you posted was just plain racist, and I would have not enjoyed the book after that either. It's rather rude and uncouth to suggest that type of thing, and it speaks to the author's internal thoughts. Not good at all. I am going to be skipping this one.

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  15. Okay, well I think I liked this more than you did - but if you had this negative a reaction to the first one, you should definitely NOT keep going with the series. I'm always interested to see what Bray writes about next, but her books have been hit or miss for me.

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  16. I really disliked this book and it's sequel (never read the third), but everything Bray has written since has been terrific. (And her later books have the bonus of being inclusive without weird racist bits.)

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  17. I have a few books on my shelf that I purchased way back when that I know I won't like at all now. This one had intrigued me once but now it's no longer on my list. I'm pretty sure that passage you shared would make me very angry too.

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