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Rebel Angels Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 23, 2005
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In this sequel to the Victorian fantasy A Great and Terrible Beauty, Gemma continues to pursue her role as the one destined to bind the magic of the Realms and restore it to the Order--a mysterious group who have been overthrown by a rebellion. Gemma, Felicity and Ann, (her girlfriends at Spence Academy for Young Ladies), use magical power to transport themselves on visits from their corseted world to the visionary country of the Realms, with its strange beauty and menace. There they search for the lost Temple, the key to Gemma's mission, and comfort Pippa, their friend who has been left behind in the Realms. After these visits they bring back magical power for a short time to use in their own world. Meanwhile, Gemma is torn between her attraction to the exotic Kartik, the messenger from the opposing forces of the Rakshana, and the handsome but clueless Simon, a young man of good family who is courting her. The complicated plot thickens when Gemma discovers a woman in Bedlam madhouse who knows where to find the Temple; Ann shows signs of being enamored of Gemma's loutish brother Tom, and their father's addiction to laudanum lands him in an opium den. A large part of the enjoyment of this unusual fantasy comes from the Victorian milieu and its restrictive rules about the behavior of proper young ladies, as contrasted with the unimaginable possibilities of the Realms, where Gemma has power to confront gorgons and ghosts and the responsibility to save a world. (Ages 12 and up) --Patty Campbell
From School Library Journal
Grade 8 Up–At the end of A Great and Terrible Beauty (Delacorte, 2003), Gemma Doyle was determined to rebuild the Order and find and destroy Circe. Now the teen finds that she must do one more thing–find the Temple and bind the magic she released into the realms when she destroyed the runes. Her task will not be easy; Kartik and the Rakshana have their own plans, which threaten her; a mysterious new teacher may be Circe; and Christmas in London challenges the careful facades that Gemma and her friends Ann and Felicity have built. Dark things are stirring within the realms, including a possibly corrupted Pippa, and the only guides are Gemma's horrifying visions of three girls and the gibberish of a girl confined to Bedlam. Like the first volume, this is a remarkable fantasy steeped in Victorian sensibility; even as the girls fight to bind the magic, they are seduced by London society and the temptation to be proper young ladies. Gemma and her friends are pitch perfect as young women in a world poised for change, uncertain of their places. In many ways, this volume surpasses the first. The writing never falters, and the revelations (such as Felicity's childhood of abuse, discreetly revealed) only strengthen the characters. Clever foreshadowing abounds, and clues to the mystery of Circe may have readers thinking they have figured everything out; they will still be surprised. This volume does not stand alone; however, any collection that doesn't already have the first should just get both volumes.–Karyn N. Silverman, Elizabeth Irwin High School, New York City
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All is not well in the Realms. With the runes destroyed, the magic has been set free…and it’s Gemma’s responsibility to stop it. With Christmas rapidly approaching, Gemma, Felicity, and Ann will be leaving Spence Academy to visit their families in London, making it very difficult for them to visit the Realms together. Additionally, Gemma is receiving strange visions of girls wearing white dresses; they’re trying to tell her something, but what? Throw an enchanting new suitor, Kartik’s return, a strange new teacher, a mental hospital patient with ties to the Order, and reuniting with (a disturbingly off) Pippa and Gemma has a lot on her plate to contend with. Both the Rakshana and the Order are pressuring her to contain the magic in ways to suit their own needs…but how will she accomplish what even her mother failed to do?
There’s no “Middle Book Syndrome” present here – the story is absolutely riveting! It’s both interesting and presents new ideas rather than just trying to keep the story from the first book afloat. It uses the groundwork from the first novel and builds on it to create its own story. I was completely captivated and had a hard time putting it down. The story is very well paced and flows beautifully. It never felt to me that the plot was stalling or lagging; there are definitely slower moments and plenty of events that take place outside of the realms, but all of the scenes feel like they’re working towards furthering the story in some way instead of stalling for time. It’s easy to get lost in for simply being an enjoyable read.
One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the portrayal of Victorian society. In “Rebel Angels,” the time period isn’t just a backdrop – it’s practically a character. It’s very well fleshed out and realized. We can see how stifling it is to our protagonists and just how much it affects their lives (and, sadly, how there’s practically nothing they can do about it). While the historical accuracy may have been stretched a bit (the girls moving freely around London without an escort or, in one case, how easy it was to shake their escort), Bray obviously did a lot of research to bring the time period to life. Even the struggles faced by Gemma’s family are uniquely Victorian (a father addicted to laudanum, a brother who wants to get into the best society clubs and marry well while also furthering his medical career, and a grandmother who’s insipidly caught up in putting on a good front and securing a good marriage for her granddaughter). It all just “feels” so authentic, which I greatly value when reading literature set in another time period. The second book takes us out of Spence and puts us in the middle of London. The new setting means exploring new constraints, and it’s all very fascinating! Additionally it also serves to be delightfully creepy. While Gemma spends a good deal of her time at society parties, the theater, and trying to impress the “right” people, she also manages to visit some less savory locations: the mental hospital where her brother works (and all of the people who reside in it), an opium den to rescue her father, and the seedy side of London with Kartik. The realms have also become more unsettling, a step away from the fairy tale-esque land of the first novel, and some of its inhabitants more deranged (the poppy warriors are flat-out terrifying and even Pippa, a well-loved friend, seems more than a little unhinged). It all casts a dark tone over the story, giving this Victorian romp a sometimes horror-worthy vibe…and Bray writes it all very skillfully.
This is perhaps an odd observation, but a lot of the Young Adult tropes surrounding appearance that I usually find distasteful work surprisingly well in this setting. To list a few, the protagonist worries that she isn’t attractive enough; there are detailed descriptions of clothing; many of the side characters (and the main characters) are concerned primarily with their looks; women are looked down on simply for being women; the protagonist marvels at how attractive she looks in a particular gown; characters want to be beautiful to catch the eye of a love interest. These normally make me roll my eyes when I come across them, but they make so much sense in the context of young woman living in Victorian London that I actually found them to be an attribute to the story for immersion’s sake.
Then there’s the twist. There’s a huge reveal at the end regarding the identity of the antagonist. I’m not going to completely give it away, but my jaw dropped when I got to it. I’ve seen other authors attempt similar tricks, trying their hardest to convince the reader that the bad guy is one character only to “cleverly” reveal that it’s someone else…and usually they’re so heavy-handed in their quest to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes that it’s obvious who the real antagonist is. But in “Rebel Angels,” it’s so convincingly written and Gemma believes so strongly that she has it figured out and the evidence was all there that I totally went along with it. Then BAM! The real antagonist is revealed and I’m left gaping in shock like a fish. It all makes sense and adds up when you go back and think about it, but I found it impossible to predict…and I generally think I’m pretty good at guessing what’s going to happen. I’ve seen this mishandled so many times that I was probably irrationally surprised and delighted with how well Bray kept her cards close until the end. Take note, people: this is how you write a plot twist.
Moving on to the relationship stuff, I was surprised that I didn’t hate the romance...and my general disclaimer is that I hate all romance in novels. There are two male interests this time: Kartik and Simon Middleton. Kartik is the Rakshana member from the first book who seems to be developing a thing for Gemma despite their differences in social class (she’s a well-born lady, he’s seen as an Indian peasant) while Simon is the son of a well-off family who seems intrigued with Gemma because of how different she is (that is, he appears to find her social missteps and her general secrecy to be endearing rather than off-putting). Both suitors are well fleshed out and have distinct personalities. Again, the setting works in the romance’s favour because it makes it all seem a little less tiresome and, in the case of Kartik, a lot more forbidden. The greatest feature of the romance is that both potential beaus are likeable in their own right. Sure, they don’t always make the best decisions and they aren’t always necessarily “good” guys, but I don’t think anyone could deny that Simon has a certain allure and Kartik is an appealing enigma. I was also overjoyed that the romance, while being present in Gemma’s mind, doesn’t dominate the novel. The staunch Victorian sensibilities dictate that Gemma has to go about things in a certain, detached way, so that already makes it impossible for the book to be weighted down with make out sessions; but most of all, Gemma seems to realize that stopping the magic from escaping the realms is far more important than figuring out which boy she really likes. So while we get some introspection on her end about her feelings for her kind-of-suitors, she knows when to push it aside and focus on the task at hand. Additionally, both of the guys seem to have their own lives outside of Gemma (Kartik’s is perhaps closely tied to hers, but he still engages in activities that aren’t directly related to her), so it doesn’t feel like these characters exist solely to romance her (or, conversely, that she exists just to get a boyfriend). It’s also worth mentioning that it’s very unlikely that this love triangle will continue into the next book since she rejects one of the love interests at the end of the novel and seems pretty done with him (and the other is nowhere to be found).
I love Gemma as a main character. I love that she’s flawed and doesn’t always make the right choices; that she’s sometimes selfish and fully knows it; that she isn’t always nice to others. She’s very believable for a young Victorian woman. Her actions have huge consequences and it’s refreshing to see her not only struggle with what to do, but to make big mistakes and then have to fix it (and if there’s something to be admired about Gemma, it’s her drive to fix whatever mess she’s made, even if she tries to convince herself that she did what she thought was best). Some have complained that she’s shallow, selfish, and petty, but I think those qualities make her more authentic because they make her read like exactly what she is: a teenage girl (especially one growing up in a society where young women are valued strictly based on their physical beauty and family wealth). Much as I love a strong heroine, sometimes it’s nice to read about a girl who isn’t trying to be an adult in a teen’s body, who isn’t trying to be the best fighter or the most accomplished magic-user, who doesn’t always have everything under control. At the heart of it, I like Gemma so much because she’s so believable as a character and has some big flaws to overcome that make her incredibly relatable and likable.
Additionally, she has a great voice. The novel is written in first person point of view, and I’ve always maintained that if the first person is going to be used, the narrator needs to have either a unique voice or an interesting perspective on the book’s events. Gemma’s voice comes through very strong in the writing, to the point that I often felt like I was listening to her tell the story rather than reading it. It may seem minor, but I love first person when utilized properly, and Bray certainly knew how to capitalize on it.
Felicity, Ann, and Pippa also continue to be a joy to read. I’ve read far too many YA novels where the only characters that receive any attention are the protagonist and her love interest(s); friends, if she has any at all, are either ignored or given such shallow characterization that they might as well not even be there. So, I was delighted to discover that these three maintain their distinct personalities and, arguably, receive as much character development as Gemma. They’re all very realistic figures with their individual strengths and flaws, and while it can be frustrating when they don’t make much of an effort to overcome their various personality issues (really, Ann, would you please try standing up for yourself for once?), you can completely understand why they are the way they are. These are young women that are shaped by their society, their status, and their families. They all desire something different, but they come together with Gemma to achieve their goals. I also like (and some reviewers disagree) that you can’t be entirely sure that they’d all get along and tolerate one another if not for Gemma’s abilities . Again, they’re all products of their time, and some of them would simply have no reason to befriend one another if not for Gemma holding the group together. Their group dynamic is fascinating and watching all of the characters grow (and yes, they do all grow) is intriguing.
As an aside to that, Felicity’s childhood trauma is handled exceptionally well. I quite dislike when authors haphazardly throw rape, especially rape of a minor by a family member, into a novel to either make us feel bad for a character or emphasize how evil an antagonist is. It’s too serious a topic to address without the gravity it deserves. Bray incorporated this quite seamlessly into Felicity’s backstory, giving it the weight it needs while having her try to deal with it in the manner she’s been taught to (that is, sweep it under the rug so her father’s reputation and, by extension, hers isn’t ruined). It serves to explain a lot about this spirited girl and why she can often be almost obsessed about being in control of everything. After having seeing so many authors fumble this serious topic, it’s relieving to have a novel that makes it part of a character’s story without it seeming like it was just thrown in for shock value.
The secondary characters actually fare pretty well, too. Aside from Kartik and Simon, the girls interact with quite a few individuals in their everyday lives, and I was impressed by how well Bray managed to characterize them in the few exchanges we get. For example, we learn a lot more about Gemma’s brother Tom and her father. Nell Hawkins, despite having been driven mad by the realms, is fascinating. Miss Nightwing is given more of a background. We can see that Gemma’s grandmother, Felicity’s mother, and Simon’s mother are all attempting to put on the same air of wealthy society ladies, but they all have different ideas of what exactly a society lady is. Small comments from lower class workers and the employees of the wealthy give us insight into the types of lives they live. Miss Moore returns and continues to be a fully realized character. I was (perhaps unfairly) astonished by this varied group of side and minor characters and how well they all worked to further give life to the setting.
“Rebel Angels” is the perfect follow up to “A Great and Terrible Beauty” and in many ways is better than the first novel. It’s deliciously creepy and twists the story in an unforeseen direction. The characters grow, some revealing that they aren’t who they claim to be, and their interactions with one another are well done and fascinating. The setting is remarkably well-characterized and is perhaps one of the book’s best assets. I’d go as far as to say that it’s a perfect example of a good middle book since it manages to avoid the pitfalls that often drag the second book of a trilogy down. It keeps everything moving while introducing new concepts and situations that never fail to entertain. I give it five stars – it’s everything I wanted it to be.
I was frustrated with characters, but they acted like real people: letting themselves be misled because they don't wish to know or see what is, doubting themselves so fervently, playing dumb to keep tensions low, etc.
like the first book, this one ends without really ending. there is no cliffhanger, no promise of more; however I'm sure there will be. New alliances are forming and the characters are all changing, growing, evolving for the better.
This book does not give up it's secrets easily.
libba bray has unparalleled skills of description. the characters and worlds are apart of me forever. thank you.