Disappointment between the covers: On reading Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

If you’ve visited my blog at all during the last few months, you’ve probably seen me gushing over the series of fantasy books by Tamora Pierce that I’ve been listening to obsessively. These three quartets, all set in the kingdom of Tortall, feature brave young women finding their own unique strengths and showing courage under fire as well as compassion to those in need. I loved, loved, loved these books, and vowed to keep going until I’d read EVERYTHING set in Tortall.

That vow still holds, but this post will be a temporary break from the gushy lovefest.

I’ve been following story as well as publishing chronology, so after finishing the outstanding Protector of the Small quartet, my next adventure was to be the Daughter of the Lioness duology, starring Alianne, the 16-year-old daughter of Alanna, Tamora Pierce’s first heroine (and Tortall’s first Lady Knight).

I knew I was in trouble almost immediately. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for all of these series… but within the first few chapters of listening to book #1, Trickster’s Choice, I was hopelessly lost. So much exposition! It felt like I was being bombarded with thousands of names (people, places, historical figures), with no firm grounding in action to help keep track. I made the quick, tactical decision to switch to print, hoping that having the ability to flip back and forth and to refer to the maps and cast of characters listing in the print edition might help. Well… I suppose it helped a bit, but the essence of the story didn’t change, and that became a problem for me.

So what’s it all about?

Here’s the Goodreads summary for Trickster’s Choice:

The Future is in the hands of the next generation.

Aly: a slave with the talents of a master spy, a fabled lineage she must conceal, and the dubious blessing of a trickster god.

Sarai: a passionate, charming teenage noblewoman who, according to prophecy, will bring an end to a cruel dynasty.

Dove: the younger sister of Sarai; she has a calculating mind and hidden depths that have yet to be plumbed.

Nawat: a magical young man with a strangely innocent outlook and an even stranger past; Aly’s one true friend in a world where trust can cost you your life.

Aly is short for Alianne, daughter of Alanna the Lioness and George Cooper, Alanna’s husband and the spymaster of Tortall. Aly has been taught the tricks and secrets of the spy trade since infancy, but at age 16, she’s restless and wants to get out into the field, which her parents oppose. She sneaks out on her own to go boating and promptly gets kidnapped by pirates, who sell her into slavery in the nearby kingdom of the Copper Isles.

The Copper Isles are plagued by centuries of unrest between the ruling luarin (white) nobility and the down-trodden (brown-skinned, native) raka people. Aly becomes a slave in a noble household under suspicion from the reigning monarch. The trickster god Kyprioth, the god of the Copper Isles, enlists Aly in a plan to help raise a rebellion. And the adventure is underway.

I had a very hard time with this book. I was half-bored through most of it. As I mentioned, it’s a lot of people and places, but I didn’t connect with most of the characters. For a story about rebellion, the plot has some seriously slow points. But the chief problem I have with the story is Aly herself. She’s just too skillful and knowledgeable about being a spy. Yes, she comes from an espionage family, but she’s never been an agent or seen active duty. She never falters, never lacks the ability to carry out her ideas, and pretty much never screws up.

One of the things that makes the other Tortall quartets so special is seeing the main characters evolve from young, untrained youths who work and fight to fulfill their potential. Here in Trickster’s Choice, Aly already is who she is. There’s no learning curve, no doubt, and very little introspection.

And that’s not even addressing the social issues that are so problematic, which are talked about quite a bit in the many reviews to be found on Goodreads. Basically, this white, privileged girl from noble background has to swoop in to lead the native people to an uprising, which they apparently couldn’t manage without her. On top of which, when given the chance at freedom, Aly chooses to maintain her enslaved status in order to provide better cover for her mission from Kyprioth, which seems to imply that being enslaved maybe has a purpose. All of this made me very uncomfortable.

Oh, and the love interest is a crow who’s turned himself into a man and is learning to be human. Awkward.

I finished this book with a great sense of frustration and discontent… so why did I continue? Yes, despite my fairly unhappy time reading Trickster’s Choice, I went straight on to Trickster’s Queen, hoping for a stronger second act in the Daughter of the Lioness story.

In Trickster’s Queen:

The stage is set for revolution…

Aly: no longer just a master spy, but a master of spies. Can she balance her passion for justice and her compassion for others, and at what cost?

Sarai: beautiful, dramatic, and rash – will she fulfill the role chosen for her by destiny?

Dove: she has always stood in Sarai’s shadow. Can she prove to the world that she herself is a force to be reckoned with?

Nawat: half crow, half man. He wants Aly for his life mate, but will the revolution make that impossible as they step into new roles to change the future?

Suddenly, Aly is a spymaster. She pulls the strings and directs her pack of spies and their recruits, teaching spycraft and strategy, plotting with the raka rebellion leaders, and instigating high-stakes sabotage throughout the kingdom in an effort to undermine and destabilize the ruling monarchs.

And my frustration continues. How does Aly possibly have the skills to do all this? It makes no sense. And if I had to see Aly referring to her spies as “my children” or “dear ones” one more time, I was going to smack her.

I won’t go too far into story developments or resolutions. The book is sloooooow for a very long time, basically just a recounting of spy tactics and information gathering, over and over and over, until the actual battle takes place at the very end. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of bloodshed (and I’m not sure how we’re meant to feel about that), the fairly casual murder of children, and a befuddlingly huge number of named characters, when frankly, not every single spy, servant, or noble who shows up in a scene needs a name. It’s all just too much.

Argh. It’s so crushing to go from absolutely amazing books (like Protector of the Small) to such a let-down in the continuation of the overarching story.

I really did come close to quitting quite a few times, but I do want to continue with the Tortall books, and I still have a trilogy, a book of stories, and the 1st book in a new series to go. What if the people or events from the Trickster books end up mattering down the road? Call it bookish FOMO, but I forced myself… unhappily… to finish.

I will be moving on to the Beka Cooper trilogy fairly soon, once the library’s audiobooks become available. And once I get through all of my Tortallian TBR list, I’ll be able to better state whether Aly’s books are skippable. For future readers’ sakes, I hope that they are!

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Book details:

The Daughter of the Lioness duology:
Trickster’s Choice – published 2003
Trickster’s Queen – published 2004
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Series wrap-up: Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce

My year of reading Tamora Pierce continues, and I’m loving every moment! My most recent audio adventure was the Protector of the Small quartet, the 3rd quartet set in the fantasy world of Tortall. These book take place roughly a decade after The Immortals, and two decades after the Song of the Lioness quartet.

Protector of the Small follows a similar pattern to the Lioness books, covering a young girl’s progression through the stages of training to become a knight. In this series, the main character is Keladry of Mindalen, a girl from a noble Tortallian family who idolizes Alanna, the King’s Champion (and star of the Lioness books). Kel’s ambition is to become a knight, like Alanna, but there’s a big difference: Alanna disguised herself as a boy and kept her true identity a secret throughout her training years, only revealing herself as a woman once she succeeded in becoming a knight. While the laws of the kingdom were then changed to allow girls to seek knighthood, none have tried — until Kel.

Kel enrolls in her training as a girl, and refuses to hide her gender or pretend to be something she’s not. She’s out to prove herself, but also to help pave the way for others girls who, like her, have dreamed of becoming warriors and need only the opportunity to make it happen.

Kel differs from Alanna in another significant way: Alanna had the Gift — magical abilities — but Kel has none. If Kel is to succeed, she’ll do so powered only by her mind, her will, her drive, and her strength.

The story of Protector of the Small:

In book #1, First Test, 10-year-old Kel arrives at the palace to begin her training as a page, the first step in becoming a knight. Raised in a noble family, Kel has spent her most recent years in the Yamani Islands, where she learned discipline as well as a variety of fighting skills. Kel’s acceptance into the page training program is hotly disputed, with the training instructor, Lord Wyldon, being absolutely opposed to admitting a girl. Finally, he agrees to train her on a probationary basis — something the boys aren’t subject to, which Kel fumes over. Still, this is the condition for her remaining at all, so she grits her teeth and sees it through.

From the start, it’s clear that Kel won’t back down. She’s been told that it’s customary for the older boys to haze the new pages, but when Kel witnesses outright bullying and degradation going on, she intervenes and fights back, soon earning the friendship of other first-year boys to whom she’s given her protection. Her circle of friends expands to include a working-class maid who begins serving Kel, whom Kel then encourages to stand up for herself and pursue her dream of becoming an independent dressmaker. Lord Wyldon can’t help but be impressed by Kel’s utter devotion to her training, her grit, her cool under fire, and her ability to lead in times of unexpected danger. Kel officially ends her probation, and becomes a full-fledged page.

Book #2, Page, sees Kel continue with the next three years of her training, becoming one of the most skilled fighters among her class, proving over and over again that she’s strong enough and dedicated enough to have the right to try for her shield. In the 3rd book, Squire, Kel becomes squire to Lord Raoul, the Lord Commander of the King’s Own, a fierce group of fighters. At Raoul’s side, Kel learns the art and science of the battlefield, studying warfare and the skills of command, and again proving herself of high value to her comrades and the kingdom. At long last, Kel passes the Ordeal of the Chamber, the terrifying test required as a last ritual before knighthood, and becomes the Lady Knight Keladry.

Finally, in book #4, Lady Knight, Kel sets to work in defense of the realm. A war rages on the northern border of Tortall, as Scanra, the neighboring kingdom, sends raiding parties and killing machines to slaughter townspeople living near the border and try to drive Tortallans off their own land. Kel is assigned to set up and protect a refugee camp, which she at first resents: Do they not think she’s capable of being a warrior in battle? But as she comes to realize, protecting a group of untrained civilians is an incredibly hard job, one that tests her ability to lead, to plan, and to fight. Ultimately, it’s up to Kel to stage a showdown with the evil mage behind the devastating killing machines and to rescue her people from their captors. I won’t give away the details… but rest assured that the Protector of the Small quartet has a very satisfying ending!

What a series! I really loved these books, and the audiobooks (narrated by Bernadette Dunne) are really well-done and exciting to listen to. There’s a big cast of characters, but it’s not hard to keep up and keep them all straight. It’s quite fun to see the beloved characters from earlier books pop up here — Alanna, King Jonathan, Daine, Numair — although they’re relegated to mostly smaller roles. After all, they’re all adults now — not nearly as exciting as teen-aged Kel! (Kidding… but this is YA, after all.)

Keladry of Mindelan, from Deviant Arts webisite, by artist CPatten, https://www.deviantart.com/cpatten/art/Protector-of-the-Small-484097486

Kel is a fantastic main character. She’s noble and strong, and consistently puts the needs of the weak and less powerful first, devoting herself to serving those who need her help the most. She doesn’t tolerate bullies or tyrants or people who abuse their power, and she just doesn’t back down. Kel is far from fearless — she’s terrified of letting people down, worries constantly about whether she’s doing the right thing — but once she’s set on her path, she doesn’t let fear stop her.

I love that Kel achieves all that she achieves under her own steam, no magic or interference from the gods involved. She works for what she gets, and if she’s not great at something, she’ll keep working at it until she is. But Kel doesn’t stop with her own training and skills — she trains those around her, all the various people she protects, so that they too can defend and fight for themselves. It’s inspiring, truly.

Being a Tamora Pierce book, there have to be special animals, and this book has plenty. Animals who live in the vicinity of Daine, the Wild Mage (see my wrap-up of The Immortals for more on Daine) develop extra skills, including the ability to communicate with humans and interact with them. Here, Kel has a flock of sparrows who become her devoted band of guardians, as well as a raggedy dog who fights alongside Kel — all of whom came into her life originally as animals Kel fed and cared for. There are more along the way, including Kel’s horse Peachblossom, a baby griffin, and by the end of the series, a whole squad of cats and dogs who help protect the people of Kel’s fortress camp.

I’ve loved all of the Tortall books I’ve read so far. I’m tempted to say that the Kel books are my favorite — but I’ve been saying that as I’ve finished each quartet along the way! Tamora Pierce has created an incredibly rich and detailed world filled with remarkable characters, and I love the strong young women at the center of her tales.

I can see why my daughter has returned to the Tortall books so many times over the years! I have a feeling I’ll be doing the same.

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Book details:

First Test – published 1999
Page – published 2000
Squire – published 2001
Lady Knight – published 2002

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Series wrap-up: The Immortals by Tamora Pierce

Once again, I need to thank my amazing daughter for her never-flagging enthusiasm for Tamora Pierce and the world of Tortall. After seeing her obsession with these books, starting in her tweens and continuing into adulthood, past college and grad school, I just knew my involvement was inevitable. I re-read (and loved) the Alanna series over the summer (see my thoughts, here), and thanks to a reading-order list supplied by my helpful daughter, I decided to continue onward.

So, following the list, my next stop on the Tortall adventure was The Immortals, another quartet, set roughly a decade after the end of the Alanna books. The Immortals introduces new characters, settings, and challenges, but retains the familiar Tortall at its center and keeps some familiar faces in the mix — although it’s decidedly odd to see our previous teen hero, Alanna, through the eyes of a younger girl, so that Alanna is viewed as an accomplished, brave, grown-up. (Which she is, but it’s a big jump from hearing the story through her teen voice.)

The story of The Immortals:

In book #1, Wild Magic, we meet Daine (full name Veralidaine Sarrasri — isn’t that gorgeous?). Daine is a young girl of about 13, orphaned after raiders killed her mother, who signs on as an assistant to the horse trainer who supplies horses to the Queen’s Riders, an elite fighting force serving the kingdom of Tortall. Daine has an unusual skill with animals of all sorts. When she meets the mage Numair, she learns that it’s not just a skill — it’s magic. Wild magic, to be specific, a rare and unusual gift that allows her to connect with animals and speak with them mind to mind. Later on, as she learns to use and expand her magic, she’s even able to inhabit animals and shape-shift at will, giving her powers that enable her to triumph in the most dangerous of situations.

Daine becomes a key player in the kingdom, working with the King’s forces and range of allies to combat enemies who wish to overthrow him. In book #2, Wolf-Speaker, a fiefdom within Tortall has taken disturbing steps to shield themselves from the rest of the kingdom, using the mining of unusual gems to establish a magical connection with the Emperor Ozorne of Carthak. And in book #3, Emperor Mage, Daine travels to Carthak with a Tortallian delegation to negotiate peace between the nations, only to find herself enmeshed in the Emperor’s sinister schemes.

Finally, in book #4, The Realms of the Gods, there’s the ultimate showdown between Tortall and Ozorne, although Daine and Numair spend much of it literally in another world, having been brought into the realms of the gods for their own protection. Much of the 4th book is spent on Daine and Numair’s quest to find a way back to their own world, in order to fight alongside their friends and defeat Ozorne once and for all.

 

I really and truly enjoyed this series, although (and I hate to say it), the fourth book was somewhat weak in comparison to the earlier three. I love Daine as a character: She’s fierce, talented, and strong. We see her development from a young girl who’s been wounded by life, full of guilt and self-doubt, into a young adult with the confidence to use and control her gift, but who never abuses her own power. She’s devoted to the animal world and respects all creatures, coming to understand that even animals that humans find repellant have a purpose and a right to their lives. Daine is a loyal friend, who loves unconditionally and pursues what she feels is right, even at risk to her own life.

My problem with the 4th book is right there in the title. By removing Daine and Numair to the realms of the gods, too much of the book is spent with them outside of the central arena of the story so far. They’re isolated, encountering new beings and places on their quest to return home. This takes them out of Tortall for way too much of the story, so that they’re only there for the final showdown. Yes, while in the realms of the gods, Daine learns important facts about her parentage and her own powers, but it’s not a great way to wrap up the series.

 

 

 

I can’t talk about these books without mentioning the amazing animals and gods Daine befriends. There’s Skysong, also known as Kitten, an orphaned baby dragon whom Daine rescues and raises; the badger god, who becomes Daine’s patron and mentor; Tkaa, the basilisk, a strong ally; Cloud, Daine’s pony, and so many more. Because Daine can converse with animals, we get to know all of these as people with their own minds and attitudes, and it’s quite fun and fascinating to see how the author chooses to portray them.

 

 

I listened to the audiobooks — such a treat! The Immortals was recorded by Full Cast Audio, who specialize in full-cast recordings of children’s books. Tamora Pierce herself serves as narrator for the series, and each character gets his or her own voice actor. This was a bit of an adjustment for me at first, as I’m not used to listening to audiobooks with more than a single narrator. Once I got into it, though, it was really a great experience. I particularly loved the voices for Daine and Numair, but also really enjoyed the voices used for their animal and immortal friends.

The Immortals was a terrific listen and a great adventure, and I will absolutely be continuing with my Tortallian quest! Next up (after a pause to catch up on some other audiobooks) — the Protector of the Small series!

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Book details:

Wild Magic – published 1992
Wolf-Speaker – published 1993
Emperor Mage – published 1994
The Realms of the Gods – published 1996

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Series wrap-up: The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

Sometimes, revisiting a series you read ages ago is just the thing for lifting your spirits. Or at least, that’s definitely true for me!

I first encountered the Alanna books (by Tamora Pierce) when my daughter, then a middle-schooler in her tweens, fell in love with the story. Naturally, I thought I’d better check out what had captured my 12-year-old’s attention so firmly. And while I was delighted by the girl-power message of the story, I’ll admit that there was slightly more bed-hopping than I felt entirely comfortable with my daughter reading at that point.

Years passed. My daughter, now an adult, has devoured ALL of Tamora Pierce’s books and treats them like comfort food, revisiting not just the Alanna books but all the other books set in the world of Tortall on a regular basis. She’s been urging the other books on me for years, but I had only so-so memories of the Alanna series, and didn’t remember much of the details. I just couldn’t see myself re-entering that world.

And then, I did.

I’m not sure why I decided to finally jump in, but I ended up listening to the audiobooks of the Song of the Lioness  quartet this summer… and loved them. Narrated by actress Trini Alvarado, the audiobooks were a low-stress, low-commitment way for me to dip my toe back in to the world of Tortall and see if I felt the need to truly swim deeper. Turns out, the answer was yes.

I became immersed in the story almost immediately, and continued listening all the way through until I finished the fourth book. Along the way, there were some surprises, such as the fact that I hadn’t actually read the 4th book when I first encountered the series. I was certain that I’d read them all, until I commented to my darling daughter that I didn’t remember certain of the characters or plot points from that book, and she informed me that I’d stopped before I ever got there! Silly me.

Let me now backtrack and explain a bit about the books, for the uninitiated.

In book #1, Alanna: The First Adventure, we meet Alanna of Trebond and  her twin brother Thom, two motherless 10-year-olds with a father who doesn’t particularly care about his children. They’re sent off to follow the prescribed path for noble children — boys to the capitol city to train as knights, and girls to the convent. But Alanna and Thom have different plans: Alanna dreams of knighthood and adventure, and Thom wishes to pursue a study of sorcery through the convent’s magical teachers. They switch places, and Alanna becomes Alan of Trebond, entering the palace as a young boy embarking on the training to become a knight, starting by serving as a palace page.

As Alan/Alanna grows up, she earns her place among the boys who are her peers through her toughness and her absolute determination to become the best. She’s loyal and fierce, and forms tight friendships with the pages and squires around her, including Prince Jonathan, heir to the throne. She also meets and becomes fast friends with George Cooper, a young man of the streets who presides over the lower class’s thieves and rogues. Between Jonathan and George, she has two allies and advocates who will stick with her no matter what.

Over the course of the series, we see Alanna advance to squire and finally to knighthood. She ultimately reveals her true gender, and sets out on a series of adventures, becoming a member of the Bazhir desert tribes, learning advanced magical skills as a shaman, and ultimately setting out on a quest that will either save the kingdom or end her own  life. There are romantic entanglements a-plenty (along with the bed-hopping that shocked me on behalf of my 12-year-old — although really it’s tame and non-graphic compared to today’s YA fare).

What I love about this series is the ongoing development of Alanna as an individual who refuses to adhere to the predetermined roles available to someone o f her social status and gender. She embraces her strengths, acknowledges her weaknesses, and never stops trying to improve and grow. She also refuses to be all one thing or another: Yes, she wants to be a knight, and to get there must hide her true gender, but she still manages to find kindly women to go to with her questions about women’s bodies, menstrual cycles, clothing, and relationships. Alanna remains true to herself throughout, and proves to be not just brave and skilled as a warrior, but a trustworthy friend, a beloved surrogate daughter, and a devoted lover.

Beyond all that, the Alanna quartet is quite simply a great fantasy adventure. There are sword fights and horseback adventures, battles and feats of chivalry, and all  manner of court dramas and  formalities. The world-building in the Alanna books is terrific, including not just the knighthood aspects but also its own brand of magical powers, sorcery, and a history of gods and goddesses with powers over the land. The pieces all come together brilliantly, and left me entirely satisfied by the awesome climax and conclusion of the final book, but also wanting more of the characters and this particular kingdom and world.

Luckily, there are plenty more books set in Tortall for me to explore, and my daughter has been kind enough to provide me with her recommended reading order. Next up is the Immortals quartet, starting with Wild Magic, which I’ll begin once I finish up the next couple of audiobooks in my queue.

I’m so happy to have finally revisited the Alanna books, and recommend them highly!

But please, not this set of covers. I can’t even.

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Book details:

Alanna: The First Adventure – 274 pages, published 1983
In the Hand of the Goddess – 264 pages, published 1984
The Woman Who Rides Like a Man – 284 pages, published 1986
Lioness Rampant – 308 pages, published 1988

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Shelf Control #118: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2010
Length: 386 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

An award-winning literary author presents her first foray into supernatural fantasy with a novel of post-apocalyptic Africa. 

In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny – to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture – and eventually death itself.

How and when I got it:

I bought this book last summer… so relative to some of the other books on my shelves, it hasn’t been all that long!

Why I want to read it:

After reading Binti and Lagoon, I knew I wanted to read more by this author, and then when it was announced that Who Fears Death was being adapted into a TV series for HBO, with George R. R. Martin producing — well, I ran right out and picked up a copy. I plan to take it with me when I travel this summer, and hope it’s amazing!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Series wrap-up: The Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

There’s something satisfying about finishing a trilogy, even if it’s not the best thing you’ve ever read.

Such is the case for me with the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray. I read the first book in the series, A Great and Terrible Beauty, over 10 years ago, and apparently didn’t think very highly of it at the time — my original Goodreads rating was only one star!

Over the years, though, I’ve had multiple people tell me that I should give the books another try. And after finding copies of all three at library sales (all paperbacks $2 or less!), I’ve considered starting the books at several different times. Finally, this year, I decided to give it a whirl, and settled on audiobooks as the way to go.

First, let me just say that the audiobook narrator, Josephine Bailey, is very good. She has to portray a variety of girls of different social statuses, as well as servants, teachers, and various other adults, keeping them all distinct as individuals. There’s never a doubt which character is speaking at which time.

Note: I did ditch the audio format for a printed version for book #3, as I just couldn’t see devoting over 20 hours of listening time to a book I was feeling not entirely excited about.

Okay, the story, bare-bones version: Gemma Doyle is an English girl raised in India during the Victorian era. At age sixteen, she’s yearning for the London society she glamorizes in her mind, and her resentment at being denied this leads to conflict with her loving mother… and then her mother dies suddenly, a victim of a murder with supernatural overtones. Gemma is transplanted back to London, the place of her dreams, but not at all in the circumstances she’d yearned for. Instead, she’s full of pain and regret for her final arguments with her mother, feels lonely and out of place in cold, damp England, and has no one close to her other than her brother Tom and her bereaved father, so grief-stricken that he’s become addicted to laudanum as an escape from his pain.

Gemma is sent off to Spence, a finishing school for young ladies, where she’s initially mocked and scorned by the mean girls clique, but eventually she finds a way in. Soon, she’s part of a group of four, drawn to the stories of magical powers that their teacher shares with the class. They learn of the Order, an ancient league of sorceresses with powers that allow them into the realms, a magical world between worlds. Gemma finds that she has the power to enter the realms and to bring her friends Felicity, Pippa, and Ann with her. The realms are full of magical delights  — but there are also disturbances, as an old enemy wants back in and a secret society called the Rakshana try to control the Order and their use of magic.

Book 1, A Great and Terrible Beauty, focuses on Gemma’s discovery of the Order and the realms, and her fight to defeat Circe, a witch gone bad who wants to gain control of the realms and its powers by using Gemma. The four girls travel together through the land of magic, and along the way, face hard truths about themselves and their pasts. Tragedy ensues, and there appear to be fractures within the group.

In the second book, Rebel Angels, the girls are back at school before heading to London for the Christmas holidays. Intrigue and danger escalate; Gemma has succeeded in battling evil forces previously, but now there are repercussions as the limits on magic in the realms seem to have been lifted. It’s now up to Gemma to find the source of the magic in the realms and bind it so that it can’t be used for evil purposes. Finding the source turns into a quest for the girls, as they repeatedly enter the realms and travel through parts previously unknown, encountering strange creatures and danger at every turn. Meanwhile, back in the real world, they’re also dealing with the ups and downs of London society, including balls, dinner parties, and suitors, and Gemma’s heart is torn between the handsome, respectable young man who courts her and the Indian boy from the Rakshana who seems always ready to protect her. Bonus for boy #2: He’s gorgeous and sets her heart a-flutter.

In book #3, The Sweet Far Thing, Gemma deals with a promise made to share her magic with the peoples of the realms, while also dealing with the perils of making her social debut and having a “season” in London. There’s a lot of travel in and out of the realms, as the magic seeps into the real world in dangerous and unpredictable ways. Gemma doesn’t know who to trust, and her bonds with Felicity and Ann are tested as their desires come into conflict. The book builds to a war between factions within the realms while outside forces maneuver to gain power. And somewhere amidst all the drama, Gemma still finds time to worry about not falling over while curtsying during her presentation at court. What’s a Victorian girl to do?

Now that I’ve read the entire trilogy, do I stick with my one-star rating? Clearly, no — or else I wouldn’t have bothered with books 2 and 3. I didn’t hate the books, and I even thought parts of the story were quite good. I liked many of the characters, and felt the author did a good job of differentiating between the four girls at the center of the story, giving each a clear and distinct personality and letting us understand what makes each of them tick.

But the books are flawed, and the flaws become exaggerated with each successive book.

Part of the problem I have with these books is that the friendship between the girls, so crucial to the story, feels false and even flimsy at times. They’re not particularly nice to each other, and while they claim to love one another, they seem to turn sour and accusatory at the least provocation. There’s an element of trust missing, and resentments keep popping up at regular intervals. I guess I just don’t buy that these young women are truly best friends or that they truly want what’s best for one another. Shades of Mean Girls creep in too often for me to feel happy with the portrayal of female friendship.

In book #2 especially, the plot meanders… and I mean, a lot. The quests are mostly pointless filler. The story (and the book) just doesn’t need to be as long as it is. There are water nymphs and gorgons and people of the forest, and none of them really matter. Ultimately, the story is about Gemma’s access to magic and whether she can control it, and about the struggle between the different factions that want to control the magic and keep the others out. All the travels up and down rivers and through the woods are mainly there for colorful filler.

And book #3 — well, when I tell you that it’s over 800 pages, that should tell you a lot. This book should either have been split in two or — my preference — subjected to some ruthless editing and trimming. It’s overstuffed and not nearly focused enough. My complaints about the portrayal of the girls’ friendship holds true. Even this late in the game, the girls turn on one another, questioning loyalties, making accusations, and expressing a level of mistrust that doesn’t make sense given what they’ve been through together.

Another quibble I have with these books is that — despite the huge number of pages in the entire trilogy — the world-building is weak. How exactly does a person bind or share magic? Where are all these other Order members? Why do things work the way they do in the realms? I always felt like I was missing information, like a jigsaw puzzle with key pieces missing.

Also problematic is Gemma’s habit of ignoring advice (which the other girls are at fault for as well). She’s told not to trust anything or anyone she encounters in the realms — so she immediately trusts the first being she sees because it appears to be someone she knows. She constantly puts her faith in people who turn out to be baddies, and blindly hates those she decides are bad but who may not be. She also swears to be truthful with her friends and then goes behind their backs at a moments notice because she thinks they won’t or can’t understand or they’ll try to stop her (from doing things that are often ill-advised). Not a whole lot of common sense, basically.

I do think that the portrayal of girls’ and women’s lives in Victorian society is very well done. Females are pigeon-holed into prescribed roles early on, and any deviation from the norm is a cause for mockery, disdain, or ostracization.

Felicity takes both my hands in hers. My bones ache from her grip. “Gemma, you see how it is. They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” Felicity puts her forehead to mine, holds my hands between hers in a prayer. “Please, please, please, Gemma, let’s not die inside before we have to.”

The author repeatedly shows how the clothing of the era reinforces the restrictions society places on girls. One can’t very well run or defend oneself while wearing corsets and petticoats — walking demurely and sitting up straight and staying calm are basically enforced by the clothing required for respectability.

As we walk, the men survey us as if we’re lands that might be won, either by agreement or in battle. The room buzzes with talk of the hunt and Parliament, horses and estates, but their eyes never stray too far from us. There are bargains to be struck, seeds to be planted. And I wonder, if women were not daughters and wives, mothers and young ladies, prospects or spinsters, if we were not seen through the eyes of others, would we exist at all?

Through Gemma’s eyes, we see the damage done by the petty nastiness between the girls at the school and the emphasis on beauty and status. Gemma has (I hope) made a lasting change for the better by the end of the trilogy by pleading with the headmistress to offer her students meaningful studies rather than just posture, elocution, and deportment — and urging her to create an environment where back-biting and meanness isn’t the norm. It may be out of reach still in that era, but at least Gemma has given voice to what a more positive future might look like.

“Why should we girls not have the same privileges as men? Why do we police ourselves so stringently — whittling each other down with cutting remarks or holding ourselves back from greatness with a harness woven of fear and shame and longing? If we do not deem ourselves worthy first, how shall we ever ask for more?

“I have seen what a handful of girls can do, Mrs. Nightwing. They can hold back an army if necessary, so please don’t tell me it isn’t possible. A new century dawns. Surely we could dispense with a few samplers in favor of more books and grander ideas.”

If only the plot were tighter and better defined, I’d be able to be more enthusiastic about these books. There are clearly some important messages and themes built into the series, with powerful thoughts about girl power and friendship and independence and self-determination. Unfortunately, much of this positive is overwhelmed by the wandering and messy plotlines.

Do I recommend the Gemma Doyle trilogy. Um… I mean… yes? Maybe? There are nuggets of good, and the books are never boring. I just wish someone had taken a big paring knife to sections of the books, and then maybe infused a good helping of explanations to the fuzzier bits. As historical fiction goes, the books do a good job of invoking the societal norms, class structures, and expectations of the Victorian era. But, if you need a tightly woven plot to go with the atmospheric elements. you might be better off looking elsewhere.

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Book details:

A Great and Terrible Beauty – 403 pages, published 2003
Rebel Angels – 548 pages, published 2005
The Sweet Far Thing – 819 pages, published 2007

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