I’ve been on a bit of a YA fantasy glut lately – I’ve just finished Libba Bray’s Great & Terrible Beauty trilogy, and I’ve been re-reading Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series in preparation for the release of the next book, Breaking Dawn, in August (link goes to an excerpt of the first few pages, so SPOILERS. Sort of).

The best thing I can say about Meyer’s third book about Bella Swann, Eclipse, is that it’s better than New Moon, the previous installment. I find Bella to be brattish, unlikeable, selfish and generally short-sighted. Twilight, the first book, offered me a little hope. Against the lush backdrop of Forks, Bella’s city-girl-in-the-country schtick was actually quite appealing – there was a sense of homecoming, of her perhaps fulfilling her destiny. Moving in with a father she barely knows, to a town she hates, just to free her scatty mother to follow her new husband around America, it would be easy of her to resign herself to martyrdom and pouting self-sacrifice, but she doesn’t. In fact, I was really enjoying Bella as a character, until Edward Cullen raised his boringly beautiful head. From thereon in, I was subjected to a tale of starcrossed teenage lovers and the walking undead. I hated it when Joss Whedon did it on Buffy (remind me to NEVER watch Season Three again), and at least he has snappy dialogue. Bella is pretty quick to decide that Edward is her one true love, and that her life will not be complete until, well, he’s ended it.

I suspect I’d enjoy both the series and Bella a lot more if it weren’t for her persistent obsession with getting herself vamped. She’s presented as Edward’s redemption, the soul he’s terrified he doesn’t have, the closest the Cullen family can get to the humanity they’ve lost, but she misses the point time and time again. In New Moon, it’s so annoying that even Edward leaves for a good chunk of the book, and Bella spends his absence hanging around not-quite-platonically with Jacob Black, who lives on the local Native American reserve and happens to be a werewolf. The werewolf angle is explored with so much more depth than the Cullen’s vampirism, and whilst hormones and teenage angst as a catalyst for turning into a monster has already been done, for once I prefer Meyer’s version to Whedon’s. By Eclipse, he’s still one of the only well-rounded characters – whilst I don’t always like him as a person, I get him as a character, and that’s something that just hasn’t happened with Bella. Jacob Black, you’re too good for Bella. Get over her, she doesn’t appreciate you like I do. I could handle your phasing into a different shape every so often, provided you didn’t chase my cats. We’d be perfect together. To quote a fellow red-headed lupine-loving lesbian, I’m not much fun to be around a few days of the month either.

There are also some disturbing racial undertones – the werewolves (all of whom are Native American) are seen, at least by Bella and the Cullens, as less civilised and more obviously monstrous than the positively Aryan vampires. I doubt it’s intentional, which is almost worse.

A few months ago, I picked up a copy of A Great & Terrible Beauty, flicked through the first few pages, and was hooked. It’s a story of young women discovering their own power, both in this world and the eerie otherworld of the Realms, and it’s set in a Victorian boarding school. Bray talks about the confining nature of the corset, both in its literal and symbolic form, there are jokes about Sapphism, Tennyson references and a charismatic, possibly sinister mentor figure in the shape of art teacher Hester Moore. It’s like Libba Bray wrote it just for me. My love of the boarding school genre is well-documented, to the extent that I wrote a term paper on it for my Masters that I need to clean up and try to get published one day, and given that I’m an ex-Victorianist that still devours anything with a corset on the cover, there was no way I wasn’t going to love this.

Gemma Doyle, a rebellious sixteen-year-old living in 19th C India gets her wish to be sent to school in England when her mother is mysteriously murdered – witnessed by Gemma in the first of a series of disturbing visions. Whilst there, she stumbles across a diary of a girl who supposedly died in a fire at the school years ago, a girl who has visions as well, and who accesses a strange land called the Realms, along with her friend Sarah. Gemma, initially an outsider, bands together with beautiful Pippa, power-hungry Felicity, and plain, orphaned Anne, sent to the school to get the education she needs before going into service as a governess. When she shows them the diary her secret, already on the verge of discovery after she accidentally induces a seizure in Pippa, they decide to find the Realms for themselves. This other world becomes a place where they can be who they really are – intelligent, witty young women who have an agency denied to them in the real world. They experiment with bringing their new powers into their daily lives, with mixed results, but they can’t escape the plans that society is already making for them.

Rebel Angels is, I think, the strongest book of the trilogy. Unfortunately, it’s also the second one – which means the final book is something of an anticlimax. Some terrific plot strands that occur in RA just don’t get resolved to my satisfaction in The Sweet Far Thing, and at times Bray’s desire for heroines a modern audience can relate to can result in some irritating emotional anachronisms. However, I liked the way things ended for the main characters, especially Gemma, and the moral ambiguity of all the characters was well-handled. The one major problem I had was that the resolution of the burgeoning relationship between Gemma and Kartik was telegraphed a mile off, and I’m not sure I like the message it sends. Aside from those flaws, though, I really enjoyed the series. It reminded me both of Caroline Stevemeyer’s College of Magic , and of the books that Stevemeyer co-wrote with Patricia Wrede (creator of Cimorene, still my favourite fantasy heroine), but that’s a good thing. The more well-written, sassy heroines with superpowers the better, if you ask me. And, Libba Bray’s website is fabulous, with a side order of awesome.

Now, both fantasy series are YA, and I’m trying to figure out why I prefer my SFF to be aimed at the 16-20 age-range, rather than my own. I’ve read – and guiltily enjoyed – Laurell K Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series, although I hated her Anita Blakes with a fiery passion, and I devoured Marian Zimmer Bradley like any good little neo-Pagan would until I realised she was recycling her plots and calling it reincarnation. But aside from, say, Angela Carter and Catherynne M Valente, I don’t really do ‘adult fantasy’. Wow, people Googling for sex stuff are going to be incredibly disappointed by this blog….

I don’t have a problem with what I read, I think Y.A can be as good as (if not better than in some cases) adult lit, but my question is what am I getting out of this that eludes me in more ‘grown-up’ novels, for want of a better word? Have I simply internalised what Neil Gaiman so fabulously described as ‘the problem of Susan’ – thinking that lipstick, nylons and all the other paraphenalia of adult womanhood can never mix with swords and sorcery? Or am I just unwilling to grow up?

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