Rebel Angels: Better than first book

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsRebel Angels YA fantasy book reviewsRebel Angels by Libba Bray

Rebel Angels is the second volume in Libba Bray’s trilogy about Gemma Doyle, a teenage girl who attends a finishing school in Victorian England. The magic she inherited from her mother, a member of the secretive Order, allows her to enter the Realms, a beautiful fantasy world where she is able to control her surroundings. In the first volume, A Great and Terrible Beauty, Gemma arrives at school after her mother’s death and deals with all the usual things you’d expect to find in a YA novel about a boarding school. At first she is shunned by Felicity and Pippa, the two most beautiful and popular girls in the school, from whom she must bravely and nobly defend her roommate Ann, the overweight unpopular scholarship student. (These characters are present in just about every YA boarding school novel I’ve ever read.) When Felicity and Pippa find out that Gemma can take them to the Realms, however, the four girls are suddenly best friends. These are Gothic novels, so there are those usual elements, too: a locked down wing of the school, a tower that burned down twenty years ago, gargoyles on the walls, jittery maids, troubling dreams and visions, unexplained deaths, and mysterious people arriving in the middle of stormy nights.

Too much of the plot of A Great and Terrible Beauty felt like the plot of the many other YA boarding school novels I’ve read, so while I enjoyed the story, I wasn’t especially impressed. Fortunately, Rebel Angels is a little better. It’s Christmas time and Gemma and her friends are spending the holiday season in London where they’ll attend parties, balls, and the opera. Felicity has talked Ann into pretending that Ann is a long-lost Russian princess so that she’ll have enough status to accompany them. Gemma is being courted by a handsome wealthy suitor while trying to evade her overbearing grandmother and taking care of her laudanum-addicted father (this part was unique and well done). Gemma’s brother Tom is a medical student doing a residency at Bedlam where Gemma discovers an insane girl who has ties to the Order. She’s also noticed their new teacher behaving strangely and happens to run into the teacher who got fired last year. Together the girls try to figure out who is on their side and who might be plotting to steal the magic that Gemma controls.

Bray’s characters are a little more tolerable in this novel. Felicity is still an insufferable bitch, but at least she is a funny insufferable bitch. All this time I’ve been wondering why Gemma wants to be friends with her; surely there are nicer girls at the academy who have more in common with Gemma…. but actually I’m not sure because we never get to meet them (it seems like there are only about five girls there, though we know there are more). The relationship between the girls never feels natural but in Rebel Angels Bray gives us some backstory on Felicity that helps explain why she is such a bitch and probably the reader will feel some sympathy for her.

The plot moves along nicely but tends to be a little sloppy, relying too much on coincidences, inattentive chaperones, ridiculous plans that just happen to work, and the constant tension created by not knowing who’s really on Gemma’s side. The magical Realm, and the power itself, seem nebulous and abstract, so that the reader never understands what the rules and possibilities are. I’d say this is the series’ greatest weakness.

However, there is a nice balance between the mundane and fantastical elements, so Rebel Angels works pretty well as an historical novel. Readers will get a good sense of what the world was like for young ladies growing up in England at the end of the 19th century. The Victorian tone of Libba Bray’s prose is convincing and the brilliant performance of Josephine Bailey, the narrator of the audiobooks, makes it even more so. When we see the issues that each girl struggles with, it’s easy to see why they are seduced by the power of the Realms. Each girl wants to live a life of freedom and happiness but, even though their country is ruled by a woman, this is not the lot of ladies in Victorian England.

So far this series is a fine choice for teens who like the atmosphere of a Gothic novel while not being too picky about a tight plot or consistent magic system. If you plan to read it, I recommend the audio version.


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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5 comments

  1. We have these at the store! I’ll have to take a look at them.

  2. Go for Gail Carriger’s Finishing School instead!

  3. Finishing school it is, then.

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