Britt's Reviews > The Sweet Far Thing

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray
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's review
Apr 22, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: favorites, gothic, fantasy, historical-fiction, horror, teen
Read from April 22 to May 02, 2010

Following the battle in the last book, Gemma finds herself with powers she alone can use. She had to bind the magic to herself in order to defeat Circe. Felicity and Ann are dependent on her now to be able to enter the Realms, but Gemma can't bring herself to conjure up the door, as hard as she tries. Finally, one night, Gemma finds herself pulled (called to) the East Wing, which is undergoing renovations. Here she finds a door waiting, and it leads to the Realms; she doesn't have to conjure a door herself, after all.

The girls rejoice in their return to a world where they're free, but Gemma soon learns that with her new powers has come responsibility. The Hajin and the forest creatures want a share in the magic after helping out in the last battle; that was the bargain made. Gemma stalls for time because she doesn't want to lose the power she has yet, the power that can change the lives of her friends. There are other problems that can't be put off, though. Gemma begins to have visions of Circe, which hint that there may be life in that terrible woman yet...and visions of a new woman in lavendar, who's trying to tell Gemma something. And in the normal world of Spence, the girls' debuts inch closer.

As time goes on, the others grow restless, because they all want what Gemma has: the magic. Gemma becomes unsure of her faith in people; who's there to trust? Who really has her best wishes at heart...if anyone does? Is EVERYONE against her? The strain of this suspicion grows stronger and stronger until Gemma's living on the edge at all times. Is there a way to destroy a new threat, and still be able to help everyone in the end?



This book's a rarity to the ranks of teen novels, along with its two predecessors. After all, it carries so many genres. Historical fiction, as the real world portions take place in Victorian England. Fantasy, which the Realms and the magic represent. There's horror and gothic elements as well (this trilogy is one of few books that can be considered gothic in our modern times).

I left the romance for last; these bits were tough to read through, because I was reminded of all of those awful books floating around out there that are set in earlier periods of history...settings used just for the author to place his/her smut therein. Fortunately, there aren't so many such scenes in this book, and Bray redeems herself by casting off a happy ending for the couple. The ending's made romance fans declare themselves mortal enemies to Bray. Can't they see that everything was leading up to such an ending? Bray herself explains:

But he's the character who believes in fate. He's always had a certain suicidal ideation about him. A grandiose notion of saving the world through personal sacrifice.

She's also hinted that there's hope for the relationship yet; the magic is not fully understood yet. Perhaps something can be done to tweak his fate further still. It just annoys me that people will rate a book one star just because they're butthurt that a romance didn't work out. Please see the book as a whole and judge it by that.

This book's also chock-full of conflicts of the times: there are racial issues (the gypsies near Spence being discriminated by the workers; Gemma's and Kartik's struggle with their love because of their differing positions in society). A small light is also cast on worker's rights (Pippa's group in the Borderlands are girls who've been forced to work in factories with terrible conditions, which led to them dying in a fire; most of them were forced to work at an appallingly young age).

Most of the messages Bray sticks in relate to women's rights. Through our protagonist, we get to hear the thoughts many women must've harbored in the Victorian Age. "Why don't I have a say in my own life?" Ann's a poor girl who's known all her life that she can't amount to anything because of her status. She's burdened, but accepts her fate morosely. Felicity, for all her bold nature, can't take her life by the reins simply because of the social restraints of her gender. In her indignity, she lashes out against social norms as much as possible, but even the small bit she chooses to do has put her character into question. Her ways shock those around her at times, to the point where it's unsure anyone will sponsor her for her debut. As for Gemma, not only her magic sets her apart, but her thoughts, as well. She understands that women are hampered down, and the knowledge that nothing can be done about it weighs heavily on her mind.

Some say Bray's spotlight on women's right is too overpowering. There are some bits she throws in which I think are a BIT much: trousers as a symbol for power, and Felicity saying she's going to wear them in the end; Madame LeFarge saying she'll have some say in her husband's decisions as an inspector; Felicity's offense that women have to take on the man's last name in marriage. There's also one moment I disliked extremely at the very end, where Gemma demands that Mrs. Nightwing teach the girls to rebel against their gender roles, basically. Those tiny parts are just beating the message to death, but the overall message's depth which lies WITHIN the plot does work well, I think. The outright parts do not.

Bray, through Gemma, tells us subtly that humans are the same: those who lived in past times, if they were to meet us, would still find much in common with us, despite the different conditions we grew up in. Bray makes it so that we can take what we know of our modern world and notice comparisons in the Victorian lives she portrays. This is done well with Gemma's family. Don't we all have family issues? Don't some of us have a parent who's died, or one who's been lost to addiction? Victorian girls are no different from us in that way.

Some of the Victorian-to-modern connections don't work so well for me, however. Smaller examples are Ann's cutting, Felicity's sexual abuse, and Mina's cocaine use; yes, they might have happened back then and certainly happen now, but I feel that those moments were stretches. Gemma also ruminates on her disbelief in a higher power at one point, which I kind of frowned upon just because I believe an author shouldn't come right out and say "here's my view on religion".

On a larger scale is the homosexuality which comes through later on in the book. I'm not against homosexuality and the pairing did not offend me; that's not my problem here. My issue is with the believablity of the relationship. I could definitely see an unrequited love from Felicity, but Pippa was enamored of the knight she'd met in the realms, way back before the end of the first book. Her VERY REASON for choosing to stay in the Realms was so she could be with him, more or less. So what's this about her having romantic feelings for Felicity? One could say sexuality is ambiguous and leave it at that, but why would she fawn over the knight so much if she loved Fee? Why would she choose him over Fee, even if staying with Fee meant she had to marry Mr. Bumble? Also, when Fee sees Gemma sometime later, after Pippa's death, Fee's joking and giggling. I find it hard to believe that she'd be able to act this way after losing someone so dear to her. Not to mention that when Fee encounters the illusionist's copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, she hints that she knows about the author's sexuality and seems to disapprove of it.

I just had to say something about that, because it makes one question the reveal of Fee and Pip's romance. That being said, I DID find that I could see something between the two even before that. It was just subtext, though. Can't two people have such a close relationship without being labelled as homosexuals? Though in their case, they turned out to actually be ones. After Gemma finds out, she starts to wonder to herself if Fee had such feelings for her as well, and if maybe Gemma secretly returned those feelings in some way. These same thoughts would go through a girl's mind today, if she found out her best friend was a lesbian. However, I still think the inclusion of Gemma's thoughts was unnecessary, maybe almost too modern.

Now to get to what I loved most about the book. I really love the idea of a character being so out of place, because I can identify with that. Gemma thinks differently than most anyone in her world, especially because she's seen the possibility of a world that has more to offer...a world that most wouldn't believe in. The other girls of Spence see a bit too much, so Gemma erases their memories, except...

I leave them with one small token of their evening: doubt. A feeling that perhaps there is something more. It is nothing more than a seed.

I love that so much, the idea that she's changed them to question from now on, to see a possibility in what they would have conditioned themselves to ignore, before.

Gemma's tribulations have also changed her thoughts. She's had losses, as all protagonists of great stories have had:

The gentle laps of the river's current are but the whispered names of what had been lost: my mother, Amar, Carolina, Mother Elena, Miss Moore, Miss McCleethy, and some part of myself that I can't get back.

The best stories are those with loss, because they change the character greatly. Sometimes they can't bear the loss, but most will themselves on, and find themselves stronger for what they've had to bear. Gemma is one of the latter. After being so changed, she can't fool herself that she can fit in with this world, where girls engage in frivolities only. As she explains to her father:

I don't wish to spend my days making myself small enough to fit into such a narrow world. I cannot speak with their bit in my mouth.

Yes, there were bits that didn't work so well with me, and for whatever reason, I found that I didn't enjoy it as much as the last two. And I can't stand Gemma, personally. I never have, but the story's too great that it overcomes that for me. And quotes like the ones above impressed me very much. Thank you, Libba Bray, for doing something different.

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04/26/2010 page 419
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