March 08, 2006

Of Rebel Angels, Confused Victorians and Shadowy Orders

Ah, Christmas!
The ladies of Spence Academy are ready for the holidays, as we revisit curious 16-year-old Gemma, mercurial, snobbish and wealthy Felicity and woebegone Ann at their gothically ruined, dark and realistic Victorian finishing school. Gemma, as we first met in Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty has had a 'wild' upbringing in India, living with her beautiful and mysterious mother, whose death she foretells in a horrible vision, which leads her to be entangled in the truth about her mother's shadowy past, and those of her fellow classmates of the class of 1871 at Spence Academy for Young Ladies. In Rebel Angels, Gemma is still haunted by visions, only this time they include three women in white, who seem to be telling her... something, if only she could figure out what they mean...

As always, readers are sucked in by Libba Bray's extremely 'pitch perfect' characterization of English young girls in the Victorian era, their pettiness and embarrassments and small triumphs in the social realm. The three girls are still in an uneasy friendship, as Felicity is still power hungry, grasping for a larger share of the power she senses that Gemma possesses, and Ann, for moments of beauty and splendor to enliven her otherwise dull expectations of lifelong servitude. The dramatic tensions among the three continue to propel the novel along (that is, at times you wish to soundly slap all three of them, so you are continually engaged).

Though Rebel Angels was a long sequel (560 pages as opposed to 432 in the first novel), I read it quickly, all in one sitting, because there is a lot of light, frothy Victoriana to ingest, and that doesn't take much thought. Bray did not miss the mark in her second book in that regard; she includes danger, suspense, mental hospitals, holiday balls and 'lunatic' parties; handsome young men, swooning dances, absinthe and dance cards.

I enjoyed Bray's depiction of Bedlam, the hospital for the insane, as I have read extensively about the work done there and on the revels that went on -- wealthy people paying for the opportunity to socialize amongst the insane. I do believe that the asylum was not all beauty and light and clean, mildly eccentric patients as Bray depicted it; there were sadly deranged people there, also squalor, filth, mockery and some truly 'creative' forays into psychiatry that involved metal instruments, dubious drugs, chains, and bore holes in skulls... but it was good to see the novel tries to at least be in the neighborhood of historical fact. As for the rest, there are still plot elements which bear further scrutiny.

In my mind, the shadowy 'Order' and all of the magical plot elements that follow, are the weakest elements of the story, which is too bad, since much more time is spent on them in this volume. Magic is sometimes used to cover issues in the plot that could not have been contrived otherwise, which is, to my mind, a bit of a cheat. Somehow, the roots and shoots of the whole mysterious Order thing I cannot yet grasp -- perhaps it will come more clear in the third book? What does Bray mean with her preface from Milton and Paradise Lost? Doesn't she know better than to tempt English majors to assign more meaning than was intended? ;)) -- but I do give high marks for Bray's red herring in the matter of Circe; good readers will assume that they can figure out who's who, but they will be in for a surprise.

The character of Kartik, the Indian boy who is characterized as a love interest (why? Because he's male? Because he has soulful eyes? What do we actually KNOW about his personality except he represents the familiar - and apparently the ignorable? Again, there's a huge and wonderful discussion on colonialism that keeps getting missed by mere millimeters...) reappears, and Gemma at least this time is able to come to grips with her infatuation - but only until she chases him away with the unthinking comment that exposes her level of comfort with him ...and her disregard for him as an eligible male.

Gemma's father's continuing laudanum addiction, her brother's subsequent humanization as a struggling medical intern intent to cure him, her mother's legacy as a blithe and beautiful woman who captivated them all makes Gemma a girl worth watching. As she grows older and takes on more of the duties as head woman of her newly formed Order, hopefully Bray will be able to allow her character to remain true to the Victorian era in which she places her, and to conclude the trilogy (?) on a resounding note with all loose ends tied up and thoroughly explained.

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