REVIEW: The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray
Dear Ms. Bray,
Jane is right. The hardest reviews to write are those for the books you love. How can I capture the strengths of an 800-plus page book in only a few hundred words? The task is daunting and I’d be lying if I said I’m not overwhelmed by the thought. There’s so much good here that I can’t possibly address it all.
The Sweet Far Thing concludes the trilogy started by A Great and Terrible Beauty, following the adventures of Gemma Doyle, the last inheritor of a power beyond imagining. This book picks up where Rebel Angels left off, where Gemma defeated Circe, enemy of the Order and the woman responsible for her mother’s death, and sealed away the magic of the Realms, a sort of otherworld dimension. But those events were not without consequence: Gemma has since been unable to return to the Realms and her magic has deserted her.
When she does find a way to access both the Realms and her magic, Gemma learns everyone wants a piece of her: the Order, the Rakshana, the creatures of the Realms. Even her friends at Spence Academy, Felicity and Ann, appear to want Gemma’s magic more than they do Gemma the girl. The responsibility of controlling all the magic weighs heavily and she puts off the decision about who to share it with as long as possible.
I can’t blame her; none of the options are attractive. The all-female Order wants to regain their previous glory. Tired of their servitude to the Order, the all-male Rakshana wants to seize the power for themselves. The various creatures of the Realms are fed up with humans controlling the magic and fight amongst themselves about which tribe will control it. All of them think they know best, and none of them want to share it with anyone else.
I admit Gemma’s dithering initially annoyed me. It’s obvious she needs to make a choice and the more she puts it off, the more disaster looms. Then I stopped and put myself in her place. Gemma is nearly seventeen years old, soon to make her debut in proper London society, but she’s spent most of her life being ordinary. She’s not beautiful like Pippa. She’s not charismatic like Felicity. She’s not talented like Ann. The only thing she has that’s extraordinary, that sets her apart, is her magic, and now she has control of it all — including the ability to bestow it upon who she chooses and to withhold it from those she wishes to punish. It’s a heady feeling, and I can’t blame her for stalling. What teenage girl doesn’t want to feel special, powerful, and in control of her own destiny?
Themes of power run throughout the book. How power corrupts those who have it. How the pursuit of power leads to ruin. How the struggle for power turns people against one another. On the flip side, we also have the theme of peace. Peace is not something that comes easily and without a fight. You must fight to win it and you must fight to maintain it. It’s the failure to do the latter that resulted in the mess that is the Realms, and it’s the one thing Gemma struggles most to achieve.
Gemma’s friendships with Felicity and Ann both delight and frustrate me. They capture how tumultuous the friendships of teenage girls can be and yet, I felt they were using Gemma for her magical powers. When Gemma can’t access the Realms, they’re disappointed. When Gemma won’t give them her magic, they’re angry. When they get a little magic of their own and can access the Realms without her, they cast Gemma aside. I realize this was an extension of the power theme, but it frustrated me all the same. I wanted Gemma to admit what they were doing and stand up to them, and part of me was disappointed she never truly did.
At its heart, though, The Sweet Far Thing is a tragedy. The numerous references to Macbeth warn us, as does the clearly marked five act structure. I’ve adored the relationship between Gemma and Kartik since the first book but could not for the life of me figure out how their love could ever work out. Even if you ignore the race and class issues separating them, Kartik adheres too much to the idea of predetermined fate while Gemma believes in free will. You could have taken the easy way out, giving us the ending that’s almost expected to the point of cliché, but you didn’t and frankly, now I can’t see how it could have ended any other way. Everything has a price, even peace, and the struggle for the Realms and its magic drove that point home.
While I felt Gemma’s decision post-debut came out of left field, I loved how this book touched on issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. It’s a rare story that keeps me guessing and this book did until the very end, and I can’t help but love it for that. A-