Laura Sook Duncombe’s previous Literary Ladies Cage Fight columns for The Butter can be found here.
Hey, gal-pals! Welcome to Literary Ladies Cage Fight: where women always win! I am Aphrodite, goddess of love, and my sister Artemis and I read tons of books (for YOUR pleasure, dear readers) and celebrate the awesome female protagonists…by pitting them against each other in head-to-head combat. We’re so glad you’re here!
It is true. I am Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Each fight’s rules are the same: two women, five rounds, one point for the winner of each round. At the end of the last round, whoever has the most points wins the match! This match, we are proud to bring you two heroines brought to life by the same author: Libba Bray. Her books span nearly every YA category (romance/mystery/supernatural/history/black comedy, just to name a few) and her characters represent every walk of life, ethnicity, and sexual orientation imaginable. If you haven’t checked her out, we strongly recommend it! There is something for everyone in her oeuvre. Today, our combatants are Gemma Doyle from A Great and Terrible Beauty and Evie O’Neill from The Diviners. Remember ladies, fight fair! Without further ado, let’s get ready to rumble!
Round One: Harry Potter House
Evie is pos-i-tute-ly the berries, baby! She is a swingin’ flapper girl, complete with sassy attitude and jake slang…except she’s stuck in small-town Ohio, where nobody appreciates her modern style (or her ability to “read” objects—she can learn someone’s secrets by touching an object of theirs). Her exasperated parents send her to The Big Apple (yay!) but she has to live with her weird Uncle Will, who owns a museum of creepy crawly stuff (boo). Life is peachy keen for Evie, until she gets involved in an evil spirit’s murder plot. Can she stop the murderer before he stops her? Cocky, self-confident, street smart, and not above a little white lie, Evie is a Slytherin.
Gemma is a young lady searching for a place to belong. After her mother’s murder in 1895, she is sent from her home in India to a boarding school in England. It’s very Mary Lennox, without Dickon to liven things up. Gemma doesn’t fit in with the Mean Girls at school, she misses her mom, and she has questions about her death. Plus, she’s been seeing visions and she doesn’t know what to do about them. (Not a lot of good luck for poor Gemma.) Eventually, she discovers a book about a group called the Order and becomes convinced that her visions are linked to them. Can she discover the truth before things get too dangerous? Smart and shy, but determined to get some answers, Gemma is a Ravenclaw.
Winner: Evie. Because it’s really hard to beat a Slytherin. This matchup with two girls with superpowers would be very close, but Evie’s verve and moxie just won’t bend to Gemma’s dour seriousness.
Round Two: Sidekick
Evie’s got a whole wacky band of people who want to help her solve the mystery, but her bosom buddy is Mabel, her mousy and loyal friend. Mabel’s parents are radicals and Mabel is concerned about social ills, too (and there are ills aplenty in the Lower East Side in the ’20s). She doesn’t care for the fast crowd Evie runs with, but she loves Evie very much and reminds her of her own good qualities. When everyone else wants Evie for what she can do, only Mabel loves her for who she is. She’s not a huge character in this book, but every time she shows up it’s a breath of fresh air.
Gemma’s best friend, eventually, turns out to be Felicity, the HBIC at Spence Academy. She hates Gemma’s guts until Gemma catches her in a “compromising” situation and doesn’t reveal her secret. The two girls become fast friends, with Felicity showing Gemma how to loosen up a little and be more confident. Felicity is wealthy and gorgeous, so life is pretty easy for her, and she can be very petty and cruel when she wants to be, but beneath her shallow-seeming exterior is a warrior — a woman who wants to live her life on her own terms beyond the confines of her corseted, powdered prison. You can’t help but admire a person like that.
Winner: Gemma. Evie and Mabel’s friendship might be more authentic, but it’s impossible to beat Felicity. Call me, Felicity! You can be one of my Amazon warriors anytime!
Round Three: Love Interest
Evie’s got her choice of beaux, but her heart belongs to Jericho, her uncle’s assistant. He’s shy and soft-spoken but seriously good-looking and strong. He’s got secrets, but in 1920s NYC, who doesn’t? They spend one sweet night chastely cuddling (which is more intimate for Evie than the scores of boys whom she’s fooled around with), but Evie refuses to be with him because her best friend Mabel has a crush on him! Oooh, I love a good love triangle, don’t you? Mabel loves Jericho, Jericho loves Evie, and Evie loves both of them…but she loves Mabel most and won’t ruin her friendship for a boy. This book is the first in a series, so we’ll see where it goes, but so far, it’s longing glances and heaving sighs all around.
Gemma’s book is also the first in a series, but this series is fully written so I know how it ends. In Great and Terrible Beauty, Gemma is warned and visited by the handsome Kartik, who may know something about her mother’s death. He is mysterious and good-looking, so of course Gemma is interested, but there’s too much going on for her to devote too much time to romance…in this book (wink wink).
Winner: Too close to call! Just based on these two books, Evie’s romance is sweeter, but it seems unfair to judge a love story before it’s over, doesn’t it? And Gemma has the unfair advantage of being fully written. So this one’s a draw.
Round Four: Tragic Flaw
Evie is a modern gal…maybe too modern. The death of her brother has forced her to grow up fast, and she has to keep her feelings inside to avoid being crushed by them. There’s something almost tragic about how wildly she parties, thinking if she drinks enough champagne or dances fast enough, she might outrun her pain. She’s like a Peep—a bit hard and saccharine on the outside, but gooey soft and vulnerable on the inside. I hope as the series goes on, she can let herself be more genuine and deal with her sadness in a healthy way.
That Peep simile was idiotic and surprisingly accurate, Dita. Anyway, Gemma is, sad to say, pretty boring. Her flaw is not having enough interesting personality traits. The story is compelling, and the secondary characters are all really well-drawn, but it’s hard looking back to have any strong memories of Gemma. I think all things considered, I would have rather read a book starring Felicity. (Artie, you are too harsh! Gemma is awesome! Just because she’s not bloodthirsty like Felicity doesn’t mean she’s boring! Well, it does to me. And it’s my column. So there.)
Round Five: Happy Ending
So again, this is just the first book in the series, but things look pretty grim for Evie. She’s defeated the bad guy (natch) but at great personal cost. Her uncle, for some reason, is super mad at her for getting so involved—instead of being, you know, grateful that she saved the whole city from Evil itself! To make matters worse, she’s rejected beefcake Jericho for Mabel’s sake, which left them both brokenhearted. What in the world will happen next? (I DON’T KNOW I HAVEN’T FINISHED THE SECOND YET!!!! IT JUST CAME OUT A FEW DAYS AGO AND I HAD TO WRITE THIS COLUMN CUT ME SOME SLACK!)
Gemma has also come out on top, but victory is bittersweet. She’s got answers about her mother, but they’re not the answers she wanted. She still has so many questions and now, no way to answer them. To top it all off, she had to make a terrible decision and her friend Pippa paid the price, dying to the real world and becoming a spirit in the Realms forever. Although Pippa sees it as an escape from the dreary life her parents chose for her, she is still dead! And that is very sad. Will things ever make sense for Gemma? Will she be able to protect this world from the evil spirits in the Realms? (You have to read the other books to find out!)
Winner: Tie. Both books are excellent starts to epic series. I’m jealous of people who haven’t read them yet because they have no idea what they’re in for! These books—all of Libba Bray’s books—are seriously good, featuring such an incredible cast of diverse, complex characters. They are a great example of what YA can be. Give her a read! You won’t regret it.
Thank you for reading! With this fight, Literary Ladies Cage Fight is coming (hopefully temporarily) to a close. We are full of feelings about this, but mostly filled with gratitude that we have been given the opportunity to share so many wonderful books with you, our amazing readers. It’s been a privilege and a pleasure.
Aww, I am too choked up to say goodbye! So, I will close with a badly paraphrased quote from the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman from the film Pirate Radio: My only sadness is that in future years, there will be so many fantastic books, and it will not be our privilege to review them. But believe you me, they will still be written. And they will be the wonder of the world.
Until we meet again, gal-pals. Never stop reading, never stop celebrating women! It matters. YOU matter. We love you all.
Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virgina with her husband and a mutt named Indiana Bones, Jr. Musical theater, pirates, and Sherlock Holmes are a few of her favorite things. Her work can be found on the Toast, the Hairpin, Jezebel, and at her blog.