I actually enjoyed being in the estrogen-exclusive world that dominates most of the series. It made the sexual tensions more palpable, and I got to relive some of the cattiness of high school--only I got to close the book and escape.
The two main settings work and play off each other well: a finishing school outside London and an alternate reality called the realms. The finishing school is what you'd expect: impending, castle-like, run by a bird-faced crone, cold, filled with young bitches. The realms are like some Willy Wonka candyland filled with mythical creatures. At school, Gemma is an outcast. In the realms, she's the savior. Easy formula for some serious character growth.
Even though each of the novels is worthy of its own discussion, I'm once again going to chunk them together in one post. You're talking about a couple thousand pages of prose--breaking them up would take me forever.
- Titles. A Great and Terrible Beauty is one of the coolest titles ever. Rebel Angels, the second novel, didn't really do it for me. It was actually kind of embarrassing to buy, so I did the barcode trick. The Sweet Far Thing redeems.
- Voice. The author knows her stuff. Authentic first person from the P.O.V. of a young girl struggling in Victorian England. She's got the syntax and vernacular down; it's like reading Jane Austen, only enjoyable.
- Consistent characters. Gemma's a solid heroine. She's a human teen who has to deal not only with her sexual awakening and with mean popular girls, but also with massive responsibilities hoisted on her one after the other. Her development is natural and you care about her. (More than I can say about 80% of the characters I'm writing about here.) The evil characters are evil. The bitches she befriends remain bitchy. That being said, there are some serious characterization surprises, but they work because they're consistent with what you'd expect.
- Relevance. Rich with discourse on class, sexuality, race, gender, fantasy, virginity, silence, natural law, mythology...and, as my students would say, "much more." I'd argue that this series is a great way to get young women to learn about Victorian culture and the development of the female class over the last hundred-plus years.
- Decay! There is this wonderful, slow sense of decay that spans the three novels. Everything from the scenery to the characters to the Victorian morality corrodes. It was really central to my enjoyment of the plot.
- Gemma's intestinal fortitude. She caves in a little too much for me, especially when it comes to her whiny friends and their demands. She also has the idea that she owes her friends something. Kind of like Catholic guilt, only not quite as soul raping.
- Gemma + Kartik. They spend too much time angry with each other and not enough time banging around in the bushes. There are these deliciously almost-dirty scenes with moans and brief nipple tweaks, but they're rare. Instead, Gemma's either mad at Kartik, or Kartik is mad at Gemma.
- Keeping the gay issue buried until the end. I would've loved to see that develop more overtly--still hidden, given the Victorian junk, but played up. It could've been an opportunity to explore lesbianism within an age defined by its sexual repression. Oh well.
On a side note, I visited the author's website (www.libbabray.com) and decided that she's amazing. She's not some stuffy Pride and Prejudice worshipper. She's funky. I want to hang out with her and share high school stories. After tooling around her website, I was that much more impressed that she captured the Victorian sensibility so well.
I'll read everything she writes--including cease and desist letters.