Reviewing Gemma Doyle Book 1: A Great and Terrible Beauty [Part 1]
After the mind-numbing awfulness that was The Hunger Games trilogy, I’ve read a number of books, including all of Amanda Hocking‘s self-published Trylle trilogy (mostly mediocre, but that’s for another day) and am in the middle of “The Wilful Eye” – a short story collection edited by Isobelle Carmody. I really ought to be reading “Incarceron” by Catherine Fisher, since I bought the paperback years ago and I love everything that Fisher writes (her website is here), but instead I randomly plunged into my To Read list and started on book 1 of the Gemma Doyle trilogy, “A Great and Terrible Beauty” (Kindle edition). I wanted to relax and just enjoy this book, but the book itself wouldn’t let me. From the first page, my critical eye just wouldn’t quit. So what’s a frustrated reader to do? Why, review it, of course!
The lovely cover was what first attracted me to the book. I didn’t even read the publisher’s synopsis. Now, I’ve never read any book by Libba Bray but I’ve heard good things about her. Her novels are highly regarded and she seems to be a respected author. Beyond that general impression, I know nothing. All I wanted was to read something YA that didn’t reach the Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins level of fail. That shouldn’t be so difficult, right? Naturally, there will be spoilers ahead, so if this is a book you want to read but haven’t yet done so, please return when you have.
So, join me on my chapter by chapter journey through the dusty backstreets of India, and the er…also rather dusty backstreets of London, YA style…
If the title is a reference to the protagonist, I swear I will murder this book. I’ve had quite enough already of perfect, magical, super-powered Mary Sues, thank you very much. More likely, this “great and terrible beauty” refers to some awful, supernatural power that touches the heroine’s life. We shall see.
So anyway. The novel opens with the header: June 21, 1895, Bombay, India. Cool – an exotic, historical setting. And. It’s. Written. In. Present. Tense. Great. *grits teeth* I don’t have anything against novels narrated entirely in the present tense, but since The Hunger Games is still so fresh in my mind, I was hoping to move away from it. Oh well, I can live with it. We quickly discover that the heroine, Gemma, is out with her mother, is sixteen years old, and is being a bit of a brat. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like brats. Not in real life. Not in fiction. I’ll give her a chance though; she must have a reason for this tantrum. It transpires that our lovely Gemma is annoyed at having to live in hot, dusty, uncivilized India, instead of fabulous, genteel, civilized England, hence the friction with her mother.
“Overhead, the clouds are thick and dark, giving warning that this is monsoon season, when floods of rain could fall from the sky in a matter of minutes.”
I found the “giving warning” part odd and just, well, nonsensical; clouds can be thick and dark all year round, you know. She could’ve just stated that it’s monsoon season then led into the weather commentary. I wonder whether Bray has even visited India. Since I’ve visited the Indian subcontinent many times, including during monsoon season, I will be watching to see if Bray’s descriptions are accurate.
“‘How much farther to Mrs. Talbot’s new house? Couldn’t we please take a carriage?’ I ask with what I hope is a noticeable annoyance.”
Stop it, Gemma. You’re deliberately behaving like a brat. I’m starting to dislike you. Not a good sign, when this is only the second page.
Gemma goes on to complain to the reader that she “needs” to be in London, where she “can be close to the museums and the balls and men who are older than six and younger than sixty.” Well, it’s a relief to know that her dissatisfaction isn’t entirely about the lack of eye candy. I wasn’t alive in 1895, but I know that there were many British people in colonial India, with their own little insular communities. A miniature Britain abroad. It’s likely that a girl like Gemma would have lived in such a community. Why doesn’t the author seem to be aware of this?
British India lasted from 1613 until 1947. I don’t know the exact number of British people at any one time during that period, but according to “British Rule in India” by William Jennings Bryan, as quoted in the New York Journal, Jan. 22, 1899, in India there were thirty-nine thousand officials alone in that same year. If only half of these officials had wives and families with them, let’s say a wife and two children each, that’s 58500 British individuals living in India at the time. So I find it hard to believe that poor little Gemma was so starved for good company. Surely there would’ve been at least one guy or girl near her own age?
Gemma continues with her obnoxious behaviour, which irks me because her mother is still being pleasant, therefore doesn’t deserve it. I know Gemma’s a raging hormonal teen and all, but seriously. Protagonists like this make me so >_<
We’re on the third page when we learn that both Gemma and Mother share the same “glass-green eyes. Penetrating and wise, people call them… The Indians say they are unsettling, disturbing. Like being watched by a ghost.” I’ll keep that in mind when the inevitable spooky shenanigans begin, then. Her mother has a necklace, (possibly a MacGuffin) which probably has special powers or something, since she’s never without it.
Some action now, when a guy in a white turban and “thick black traveling cloak” bumps into Mother. His companion, a handsome young native man around Gemma’s age, locks eyes with Gemma. Hot Future Love Interest Alert. (I really, really hope he turns out to have spiky hair and a sword.) Hot guy is wearing “the same sort of strange cloak.” No, I have no idea why a “thick black traveling cloak” is strange, and I’m sure you don’t, either.
The older – and probably not hot – dude gives the mother a cryptic warning that “Circe is near” then the two men are lost in the crowd. Her mother brushes off Gemma’s questions but Gemma notices her mother’s fear. Her mother’s green eyes get another mention. Yes, I get it that her mother’s eyes are green. I understood it the first time it was mentioned, only two pages ago. Two, tiny Kindle pages ago. Mother tries to placate Gemma by giving her the special necklace before they part. Gemma, predictably, is annoyed at not getting her own way.
“I don’t want anyone to notice the tears that are pooling in my eyes, so I try to think of the wickedest thing I can say and then it’s on my lips as I bolt from the marketplace.”
I don’t understand how saying the wickedest thing that comes to mind will stop people noticing her tears. Presumably she doesn’t whisper it, either, so wouldn’t this draw more, unwanted, attention to her? Gemma, all you need to do is slink away into the crowd with your head down. That’s usually the best way for tears to go unnoticed. But the dumbass brat follows up with: “I don’t care if you come home at all” which sounds far too American, and modern. It doesn’t sound like something a British person would say, in any century. I was born and raised in England and I can tell you that over here we would say something more along the lines of “I don’t care if you don’t come home at all.”
I’m currently writing a fanfiction inspired by two American novels, therefore for the sake of authenticity I’m using American English throughout. I haven’t needed to do any research as I’ve been familiar since childhood with American English (most of our books in the UK never get localised). It’s not a big deal if I make mistakes here and there because I don’t have an editor and I’m doing it for free, just for the lulz.
Ms Bray has an editor. She is being paid for writing this novel.
It was at this stage that I broke off reading and googled “is Libba Bray a good writer?” I may well be the first person in the world to ask this of Google, but it led me to her Goodreads page, where a reader asked her what kind of research she did for this novel.
She responded that she loved the research part so much, she found it difficult to get back to the writing, (not that you could tell). She visited the UK but apparently her research didn’t seem to involve speaking to real, live British people. If she’d paid closer attention she could have weeded out the Americanisms (there are more to come).
And so ends Chapter One. Join me next time for more thrilling escapades with sixteen-year old brat, Gemma Doyle! In the meantime, here’s an interesting article on colonial India.