The Sweet Far Thing

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Magic. Secrets. Romance. Betrayal. At first glance, The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray appears to be a simple, slightly cheesy drama about catty boarding school pupils in the late 1800s, but as the story plays out, the tangled strands weave together to form a seamless tapestry of richly-layered historical fiction. There are dashes of romance and drama thrown in for good measure but the main competitor for the title of "genre" is fantasy. The brooding setting really brings to life the cultured and repressed world of the English lady, the foggy and damp nights of a mysterious and dangerous London and the delirious freedom of a secret, magical realm. The mood brings vivid images to mind of candlelit talks in the middle of the night, rustling skirts and hushed whispers and strange but wonderful creatures. This novel may have only been published in 2007 but it will haunt the reader long after the last page has been turned.

The main character of the novel is witty Gemma Doyle, a student at the Spence Academy for Young Ladies. She is about sixteen or seventeen, though her age is never clearly defined. The only physical characteristics that the authour chooses to express are her clumsiness and her unusual red hair. In the world of the cultured lady, Gemma frequently finds herself frustrated. She is sarcastic instead of charming, strong instead of demure and awkward instead of graceful. In past books she quickly established a coveted relationship with the academy's queen bee, Felicity Worthington. She also befriended the exotic Indian gypsy, Kartik and the lowly, insecure scholarship student, Ann Bradshaw, but even the sly smiles from Felicity, the hard stares from Kartik and the downcast eyes from Ann hold dangerous secrets. In the ethereal world that Gemma has the power to enter and leave at will, the three female friends prance around gaily and carefree, but the rest of the world grows increasingly darker. The mysterious Rakshana and the Order are vying for control of the realms while inside, the corrupt spirits of the deceased and the violent Poppy Warriors are intent on escaping and Gemma alone has the power to bind the magic in a precarious alliance. By the end of the trilogy, she has taken control of her life and forged a new path for herself as she recovers from her ordeal and a crushing loss. Even though she might not be able to execute a perfect curtsy, inside she is a strong and confident young woman with a dry wit that may result in awkward moments of strangers staring when the book causes moments of laughter.

In the story, the main problem that occupies the majority of Gemma's time is the impending war between the creatures of the realms. The evil Circe, a seductive witch, is at the helm of the battle, even if her power can't completely control the malicious natures already ingrained within the poisoned spirits. Gemma's adventure commences in the early days of Spring, with the headmaster's announcement of a masquerade ball. As the childish excitement permeates the academy, Gemma, Felicity and Ann are struggling with their deceased friend Pippa, who is trapped in the realms, slowly rotting from the inside out. As well, the girls are in a race against time to unravel the mystery of a magical tree in the Winterlands, before chaos is unleashed and dark magic reigns. The 800-page book rushes from exciting event to exciting event, including a cryptic séance, midnight chases through the streets of London as well as Gemma's ongoing school and family life. The climax arrives as the fierce inhabitants of the realms clash in battle with the dark warriors from the Winterlands beneath the Tree of All Souls and a bloody sky. Gemma and her friends, as well as forbidden love Kartik scramble into the fray with the allies that they have acquired during their adventures. The sorceress Circe eventually realizes that the Tree of All Souls is too powerful and has a change of heart but unfortunately the tree requires a sacrifice. As Gemma prepares to lose her life and succumb to the tree's growing power, Kartik jumps in and sacrifices himself instead, merging his soul with that of all the other unlucky victims trapped within the wood. The fighting ceases and Gemma, shocked and devastated, is free to return home. A short while later she graduates from Spence and heads to New York, still moving on from the tragedy.

The theme of the novel is, clichéd as it sounds, being true to yourself and following your heart. There is also an underlying anti-war message. Libba Bray makes a passing reference to the minds of the girls at Spence Academy. She says that they are as corseted as their waists. The simple analogy sums up the exact thing that Gemma and her friends are fighting against. Headstrong Felicity refuses to be trapped in the role of housewife to a man who doesn't truly love her, meek Ann pursues her dream of singing onstage by masquerading as a rich lady named Nan Washbrad and Gemma slowly steps outside of her fearful box to pursue Kartik as well as "the sweet far thing", peace throughout the realms and beyond. She also uses her snarky wit to liven up her life as she struggles against the constraints of the London high society. Along with the general message of peace and self-confidence, the authour touches upon many serious issues that resonate with readers today, like Felicity and Pippa's sexual orientation, Ann's self-injury, Gemma's father's addictions to illicit substances and the fact that Felicity was sexually abused by her father as a child. At the novel's end, the characters have learned to embrace their imperfections as they carve out their own little niches in a brave new world and as they chase after their dreams. The theme has universal appeal because everybody struggles at times with making the right decisions and with trying to become the person they want to be. Even if they're not quite as epic as Gemma's, every reader wages their own little battles for confidence, happiness and most importantly, peace. "And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time."

As the story closes it is with sadness that Gemma's voice will fall silent. She has become a constant companion with a fresh take on an exciting adventure. Through the eyes of a simple girl readers are able to see how she is asked to rise up to greatness to overthrow Circe. She is truly caught between a rock and hard place. She never asked for her powers and abilities and she most definitely did not wish for the intensely difficult pressure of the fate of the world to rest in her hands. But through Gemma's struggles and experiences, the writing is consistently eloquent and passionate; sometimes it is unexpectedly tender and humorous too. The Sweet Far Thing is a hefty tome with many complicated twists and turns and subplots hidden behind the mask of a pretty girl in London. Many words come to mind when attempting to describe the book in all of its scope: haunting, lyrical, powerful, surprisingly deep and multi-faceted. There's action, drama, romance, mystery and gorgeous descriptions of Victorian era London and the bittersweet realms. It's a story about pretty dresses, lies, secrets, betrayal and heartbreak. The contrast between the cold, hard facts of Gemma's real world and the shifting, exhilarating realms is probably the best aspect about the trilogy in general. The vast expanse of the tale is really brought to life with vivid words, breathtaking descriptions and battles, and heart-wrenching conversations about life, love and loss. It will stick in the imagination even after the last sentence has been devoured. It's a story about hope that will be treasured, read, reread and reread again and then remembered fondly for years to come.





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This article has 4 comments. Post your own now!

QueenBeatrice said...
Apr. 4, 2010 at 9:36 pm
I really enjoyed this book. and i was REALLY sad it ended, i think libba bray should of wrote one more book about what happend after....i love this book, the people who havent read it yet U HAVE TO its GREAT!
 
alex9426 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Mar. 1, 2010 at 7:44 pm
really good. i loved loved the series and am kinda disappointed it's over. the only critique was that there too many spoilers for those who havent read the book. other than you did a good job
 
Jaquie This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jun. 20, 2009 at 1:55 am
I don't really have anything to say (aside from what was said by write4life; and everyone hates a parrot) I guess the only other thing I can say is that I absolutely loved your review, and you really have a talent. You put a lot of emotion into your writing. Keep at it!
God bless,
...,
 
write4life said...
Jun. 11, 2009 at 9:30 pm
These books are absolutely incredible! The Sweet Far Thing is definitely the best of the series, but it is easier to understand if you read the other two first.
 
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