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Book Review

Rebel Angels by Libba Bray has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the second book in the "Gemma Doyle" trilogy.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Gemma Doyle and the other girls at the Spence Academy for Young Ladies prepare for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Friends Ann and Felicity want Gemma to take them into the magical land called the realms, but she is afraid to go back since she broke the runes that controlled the magic within its borders. Gemma wants to wait to return until she finds other members of the Order — a group of women whose powers allowed them access and control of the realms.

A new art teacher, Miss McCleethy, arrives at Spence. The other girls immediately like her, but Gemma has reservations. She feels guilty that Miss Moore, the former art teacher, was let go because she told the students about the Order. In addition, Gemma finds a mysterious list in Miss McCleethy's room. On the list, other schools have been crossed off, as if the teacher were searching for something. Gemma suspects Miss McCleethy might be Circe, a former Spence student who tried to control the power of the realms through violence.

Gemma is reunited with Kartik, a young man from India who is a member of the Rakshana. The Rakshana are men who police the Order. Unknown to Gemma, they've told Kartik to gain her confidence, help her find the Temple within the realms to bind the magic she loosed, and then kill her. Kartik tells Gemma about the Temple and gives her what knowledge he has to help her find it.

When Gemma and her friends return to the realms, they can't see any of the changes that the loosed magic has caused. Only when their friend Pippa is able to visit them does Gemma suspect something is wrong. As Pippa's body died in the real world, she should have been forced to cross over to another realm. But Pippa convinces Gemma that everything is fine. Still, she warns Gemma that the Rakshana and the Order are not allies; in fact, the Rakshana want the Order's power for themselves.

After they return to their world, the girls leave Spence for Christmas. Felicity has told her mother that Ann is not a scholarship student but Russian nobility so Ann can stay at their house over the holiday. The girls meet Gemma in London to shop, then sneak away to have tea with Miss Moore. Gemma confesses her idea that Miss McCleethy might be Circe. When the girls ask if Miss Moore was ever in the Order, the teacher laughs as if the girls are making up a story.

The girls slip away to the realms. Pippa brings them to the gorgon, a creature who has been turned into a ship. It was cursed and has to serve the Order. They are brought to Philon, another strange beast of the realms, who gives the girls a magical bow in exchange for Gemma's promise that if she finds the Temple before her enemies, she will share the magic with Philon and its followers.

When the girls arrive back home, they carry some of the magic of the realms with them. Ann uses her power to perform in front of a group of society ladies at a tea. She furthers her masquerade by singing in Russian. Gemma uses her magic to try and heal her father of his addiction to laudanum, which is a prescribed medicine that was derived from opium. It doesn't work.

After meeting Simon at the train station, Gemma and her family are invited to dine with Simon's parents, Viscount and Lady Denby. Simon is enamored with Gemma's lively spirit, and she is attracted to his charm and handsome face. Simon eventually gives her several gifts, indicating his intentions of entering an engagement with her. At dinner, Gemma's brother, Tom, tells stories about the patients he attends at an asylum. A girl named Nell claims to be a member of a secret society called The Order and has driven herself mad to keep someone named Circe from finding her.

The following day, Gemma visits the asylum and sits with Nell. The girl speaks in strange riddles telling Gemma to stay on the path, not to trust the Poppy Warriors and that the Temple hides in plain sight. Another inmate approaches and tells Gemma that the spirits are coming for her. She also discovers that Nell attended a school at which Miss McCleethy used to teach. Later, while in a bookstore with Felicity and Ann, they spy Miss McCleethy buying a book about the Order. The girls follow her through the city until she enters the asylum that houses Nell. The girls buy their own copy of Miss McCleethy's book and read that members of the Order often made anagrams of their names to disguise their identity. They are horrified to learn that their art teacher's name forms the phrase "They call me Circe."

As the holidays progress in a whirl of social engagements and dances, the girls continue to seek out clues as to the location of the Temple. With time running out before they have to return to Spence, Gemma has a vision in which she sees the Temple. When they return to the realms, they discover its beauty is being transformed. Weeds have overgrown the once beautiful garden, and flies buzz over the carcass of a dead animal. Gemma, Felicity and Ann follow the spirits of three girls who have been haunting Gemma's dreams.

The girls promise to take them to the Temple. Gemma and her friends come to a lake. The beautiful cathedral from Gemma's vision stands on an isle. The cathedral is off the path, but the girls decide to ignore Nell's warning and take a boat to the island. Grotesque creatures — the Poppy Warriors — trap them. The creatures feed off of each girl's secret fears until Felicity kills their leader with the bow Philon gave her.

As the girls flee from the cathedral, their rowboat is overturned by water nymphs. Ann is taken captive, and Gemma escapes to the real world to bring Miss Moore in to help them. After a desperate battle with the water nymphs, Miss Moore and Gemma manage to free Ann, but not before Circe's tracker captures Miss Moore.

Gemma, Felicity and Ann return to London to escape the tracker and allow Gemma time to regain her strength. She has used so much of her magic that she is weak. On her way home from visiting her friends, Gemma is abducted by the Rakshana and Miss McCleethy. The teacher claims she is not Circe, but a member of the Order trying to find Circe. She demands Gemma take her into the realms, but Gemma doesn't believe her.

Kartik helps Gemma escape. Gemma flees to Miss Moore's apartment until she can decide what to do next. It is there she discovers that Miss Moore is actually Circe. Distraught that she brought her enemy into the realms, Gemma falls ill for several days. She recovers enough strength to visit Nell and learns that Circe has not found the Temple yet. There is still time for Gemma to find it first. The girls arrive in the realms, and Gemma prepares to bind the magic, only to find that Miss Moore, Circe, is waiting for her. She holds Nell hostage as her sacrifice of blood to get the magic. Circe tries to convince Gemma to partner with her in the realms, claiming that the others of the Order will take the magic for themselves once Gemma binds it again. In a final showdown, Gemma kills Nell so her blood can't be used as a sacrifice. Circe tries desperately to bind herself with Gemma, but Gemma fights her off. Gemma binds all the magic to herself until the day when it can be shared with others of the realms.

Back in London, Gemma asks Kartik if he will leave the Rakshana to help her restore the realms, and he agrees. She then visits Miss McCleethy to ask why the Order has never shared its power. Unhappy with her teacher's answer, Gemma promises to give some of the magic to her friends and others who helped her in the realms. Miss McCleethy warns Gemma not to make enemies of those in the Order. Before Gemma leaves for school, she also visits Simon and gives back his gifts of engagement. Gemma and her friends arrive at school after their eventful holiday, and life returns, for the moment, to normal.

Christian Beliefs

The book opens with a two-page excerpt from John Milton's poem Paradise Lost, which describes the fall of Lucifer. Felicity claims Spence's headmistress is like God because she appears to be everywhere. The students attend nightly vespers at Spence's chapel and say grace before their evening meal. At one point Gemma fears she will be forced to write Bible verses as a punishment.

When Gemma and Cecily, another student, have a fight, the headmistress tells the girls they will spend the day meditating in prayer about what qualities make a decent young lady. Cecily retorts that if she wasn't a Christian she would be frank about her opinion of Gemma. Gemma acts surprised at the comment, claiming she isn't sure Cecily is a Christian. Later, Gemma muses that Cecily is the Devil. When Gemma begins to menstruate, Felicity tells her it is a woman's curse because of Eve.

The students celebrate Christmas before they leave Spence by performing a pageant and singing carols. Cecily tells a Christmas story about a horrible girl named Jemima who abuses a beautiful girl named Cecile until Cecile takes to her sick bed. Jemima is eventually shunned by good society and blinded by wild dogs. When asked how this is a Christmas story, Cecily explains that it takes place during the season of Christ's birth and that Jemima begs for forgiveness and is given a job sweeping a vicar's floors.

When Gemma tries to convince her grandmother to let her visit Miss Moore, Gemma makes up a Bible verse as an example of the teacher's humility. Gemma admits to not having read much of the Bible. Felicity's chaperone tells her that God sees her sins and writes them down in His ledger. The girls examine a painting in a museum in which the fall of Lucifer is pictured. Miss Moore quotes from John Milton's Paradise Lost about Lucifer's rebellion. She tells the girls that Lucifer rebelled because he didn't want to depend on God for power; he wanted it for himself.

Other Belief Systems

The plot of the book revolves around Gemma's power in the realms, another world filled with magic that mortals only see in dreams or when they die. When Circe lost the ability to enter the realms on her own, she made a pact with an evil spirit of the Winterlands — a forbidden area of the realms. That agreement, and the resulting human sacrifice, caused the destruction of the Order until another high priestess could be found to open the doorway. Gemma is the new high priestess, but she has little knowledge of the realms or control of her powers so she often makes mistakes.

The Rakshana are a secret society originally formed to police the Order. They now want to control the magic themselves. They take young boys from their families and educate them not only with book knowledge but survival techniques and thievery. Before the Order created the runes to control the magic, the veil between the realms and the real world was thin. Creatures could pass easily between the two, and it is intimated that this is where many of the ancient myths were created. When the Order found the source of the magic within the Temple, they took it for themselves, imprisoning the inhabitants of the realms within its borders. The evil spirits that dwell within the realms can speak to people who are insane or drugged.

When Ann says that disrespecting God brings bad luck, Felicity claims she doubts there really is a God. Kartik is a believer in the Indian caste system. He believes that fate determines what you are in this life and that there is no hope of anything different. He finds comfort in the thought of following a predetermined path.

Authority Roles

Gemma's father is addicted to opium. (When the family restricted his access to laudanum, he started going to an opium den for the drug. Although he loves Gemma, he cannot overcome the drug and is often incapacitated by its effects. In one scene, Gemma disguises herself as a boy so she can enter an opium den and drag her father home after he's been gone for several days. Gemma discovers that Felicity's father sexually molested her as a child. Felicity won't discuss what happened and won't listen to anything negative about her father. When he brings in a young girl to be his ward, Felicity tells the little girl to keep her bedroom door locked at night. Spence's headmistress is seen as a strict disciplinarian but protective of the girls. Initially, the girls trust Miss Moore and believe she is someone who will help them; instead she uses them to gain access to the realms.


God's name is used in vain with dear and oh. The British curse word bloody is also used. Felicity calls two girls little demons when they cut in front of her into the dining hall.

Many of the creatures are evil. The water nymphs prepare to skin Ann after they capture her. Miss Moore tells the girls it is how they keep the water warm. The girls come across the disfigured victims of a factory fire who are unable to crossover to the realm where the dead usually go because of the unbridled magic. Pippa is slowly being corrupted. At times, she seems to grow fangs and thirst after blood.

Circe's tracker is described as a giant, winged beast. It has a huge mouth with bits of flesh hanging from its pointed teeth. Within its wings are tormented faces, and it is filled with hate and terror. It travels with skeletal riders. In a fit, Nell strangles a pet bird. The Poppy Warriors are grotesque creatures. One wears a necklace of finger bones. Their leader threatens to kill the girls slowly and then suck the magic from their bones. He torments each girl with her secret fears — Ann's lack of confidence and beauty, Felicity's shame over her father's incest and Gemma's pain over her father's addiction. Felicity kills the leader with an arrow through his neck.

Pippa throws a net over the water nymphs to try and stop them from capturing her friends. The nymphs bubble and dissolve as if by acid. Gemma shoots Nell through the neck so that she can't be used as a sacrifice. Once Gemma binds the magic, Pippa's body begins to corrode.


Gemma has a physical attraction to both Kartik and Simon. Kartik kisses her hand. Much is made of Gemma's physical response to him when they dance together. At the end of the dance, they kiss.

At a party at Simon's house, Gemma becomes disoriented from the effects of absinthe. Simon takes advantage of that, and they share several passionate kisses. He takes her to a secluded bedroom, and it is intimated that he wants to have sex with her. He stops his advances when Gemma begins screaming at a vision of the tracker attacking three small girls.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: Gemma and her friends drink alcohol at a party.

Drug use: Gemma's father is addicted to laudanum. An opium den is described in graphic detail.

Lying: After Ann confesses her deceit to Gemma's brother, whom she has a crush on, he dismisses her as a horrible girl. Ann muses how telling the truth in stories makes everything work out well and how good always triumphs. She realizes that it doesn't work like that in the real world life.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

16 and up


Libba Bray






Record Label



Delacorte Press, a division of Random House Publishing


On Video

Year Published



2006 ALA Best Books for Young Adults


We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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