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Book Review

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the third book in the "Gemma Doyle" series.

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

Seventeen-year-old Gemma Doyle has not been able to return to the magical world of the realms since she defeated her nemesis, Circe, and bound the magic of the realms to herself. Instead, Gemma and her friends Felicity and Ann must spend their days at the Spence Academy for Young Ladies. Gemma and Felicity prepare for their debut in London Society. Ann, a poor scholarship student, must ready herself to work as a governess for her ill-behaved cousins. Adding to Gemma's worries is her desire to see Kartik — the young man from India who saved her life in London. He promised to aid her in her fight to save the realms, but he has yet to return to Spence.

One night, Gemma is given a vision of a young woman and a magical door located in the ruins of the east wing of the school. An unseen force pulls Gemma to investigate the east wing, which is being renovated after a fire caused by members of the Order destroyed it 25 years earlier. The Order is a group of women who used to wield the magic in the realms. In the east wing, Gemma discovers the magical door. She wakes her friends, and they use the door to get to the realms.

Although ecstatic to be back, Gemma faces the wrath of the creatures there because she had promised to share the magic with them. Gemma fears giving up her power before she makes things right in the lives of her friends and family back home. Before leaving the realms, the girls meet with their friend Pippa, whom they feared had fled to the evil Winterlands. Pippa has remained within the realms and has taken several young factory girls under her wing. She secretly begs Gemma to take her across the river to where the dead live so she can leave the realms behind. Gemma agrees, but when the time comes, the land of the dead refuses to let Pippa enter because she has been corrupted by dark magic. To ease her friend's grief at having to live alone in the realms, Gemma gives Pippa a gift of magic.

Back in Spence, Gemma is plagued by visions that warn her to find a "Tree of All Souls." Gemma acts as a detective in order to decipher the dream's meaning. She also struggles with feelings of rejection because Kartik returns and tells her he will not help her with her work in the realms. He stays with the gypsies, who live in the woods outside of Spence and who disapprove of the school renovating the east wing. One of the gypsy elders, Mother Elena, claims the tower is cursed and will bring evil on everyone around it.

Miss McCleethy, a leader of the Order, comes back to Spence as a teacher. She attempts to convince Gemma to work with her and re-establish the Order as the rulers of the magic, but Gemma doesn't trust her. She lies and tells the teacher that she's been unable to return to the realms since she battled Circe.

While visiting her family in London, Gemma is approached by Mr. Fowlson, a kind of protector of the Rakshana (former guardians of the Order). Fowlson threatens Gemma and her family. He wants her to share the magic with the Rakshana, but Gemma claims to have lost her powers. The creatures in the realms continue to pressure Gemma to share the magic with them.

Gemma discovers that the woman she keeps having visions of is Wilhelmina Wyatt, a former Spence student and author of a book about the Order. Miss Wyatt was a mute and a drug addict. The woman insists that Gemma find the Tree of All Souls but can offer no clues as to its location. Desperate for advice in deciding what to do about the realms, the magic and the threats against her family, Gemma seeks help from Circe. Her enemy is trapped in a magical pool within the Temple of the realms. In exchange for some of Gemma's magic, Circe agrees to answer the girl's questions. Circe tells Gemma she must search the darkest corners of her soul in order to truly know herself. Only that way will she be able to control the magic. She also tells her of the location of the Tree of All Souls. Gemma and her friends travel to the Winterlands and find it. There, Gemma has a vision of Eugenia Spence, the founder of the Spence school. Eugenia was a powerful member of the Order. Eugenia sacrificed herself to save the lives of Gemma's mother and Circe. In the vision, Eugenia asks Gemma to find a dagger imbued with great power. With that dagger, Gemma can release Eugenia from imprisonment within the Tree of All Souls and allow her to pass into the realm of the dead.

Kartik arranges a meeting for Gemma with an informant of the Rakshana, but they are double-crossed. Mr. Fowlson surprises them and reveals that Kartik was tortured after he helped Gemma escape from the Rakshana. During that time, he had a vision of his brother, now a creature of the Winterlands. In his vision, that creature killed Gemma. Fearing for Gemma's life, Kartik had stayed away from her. Gemma unleashes her magic on Fowlson, and she and Kartik escape. When they return to Spence, they find the workmen on the east wing in an altercation with the gypsies. Mother Elena has been marking the stonework with blood to ward off evil spirits. The workmen accuse the gypsies of killing two of their men who've disappeared. Gemma discovers that Kartik has been spying on her for Miss McCleethy. She flees to the realms and confronts Circe again, searching for answers. Circe agrees to tell her more about the Order and the Rakshana in exchange for another gift of magic.

Gemma returns to the realms some time later with Ann and Felicity. They discover the beauty of that world is eroding into chaos. The different magical creatures have begun fighting amongst themselves. The centaurs accuse Gemma of conspiring to give the magic to their enemies. She must admit that she has been talking to Circe in secret. The centaurs refuse to help Gemma, and Felicity denounces Gemma's behavior as reckless. Felicity finds Pippa and gives her a gift of ostrich feathers from her debut ball. Pippa is delighted and wants to host a party for the factory girls as well. When Gemma claims to be too tired to use her magic to transform the decrepit castle they live in into a place of beauty, Pippa summons her own magic. Gemma learns that Pippa has been going to the Winterlands to make sacrifices to the Tree of All Souls in order to gain power. Felicity and Ann discover they now have the ability to come and go into the realms without Gemma's aid.

Gemma takes Kartik into the realms. The two share a passionate vision before they sneak into the Winterlands. At the Tree of All Souls, they see Kartik's brother performing a blood sacrifice in order to strengthen the power of the creatures within the Winterlands. He plans to sacrifice Gemma to control both the realms and the world of the mortals. Later, Gemma discovers that Circe has freed herself from the Temple pool and is planning to join the Winterlands' creatures. Pippa has also aligned herself with the malignant evil from that part of the realms.

Through her detective work, Gemma figures out that Eugenia Spence has betrayed the Order and has become one with the Tree of All Souls. It is her spirit that cries out for Gemma's blood in order to free the Winterlands. On the anniversary of Eugenia's birthday, the veil between the realms and the mortal world is opened at the east wing of Spence. The demons of the Winterlands attack the school to bring Gemma back as a sacrifice. In a final battle, the creatures of the realm join with Gemma to defeat the creatures of the Winterlands. She gifts them with magic in order to aid them in the fight. Gemma stabs the Tree of All Souls, releasing the magic within, but is stabbed by Kartik's brother before she can escape. If her blood reaches the ground it will complete the sacrifice, and the Winterlands creatures will win. Kartik rushes to rescue her and offers himself as a willing sacrifice instead. The souls and magic from the tree enter him, and Kartik is transformed into a new tree that is forced to stay in the realms forever. The magic is returned to the land so all creatures can draw from it.

Gemma can only "free" a soul trapped in a tree; the soul can then cross over to the realm of the dead. Since she believes Kartik is still alive within the tree, and the tree's power restores the beauty of the realm, she won't release him, which would kill him. Gemma, therefore, must leave him and go on with her life. She returns to London and makes her debut. Afterward, she tells her father she does not want a place in British society. Instead, she intends to travel to New York City to make a new life for herself.

Christian Beliefs

The Rose of Battle by W.B. Yeats opens the first part of this book. The poem speaks of God's battles. The girls of Spence attend vespers every evening. A servant puts up crucifixes to ward off evil. Ann wonders if God will punish them when they use the magic to play a prank. Gemma is seen celebrating Easter at church. Felicity comments that the sermon was boring. Ann repeats a legend that Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea walked the hills of England. Felicity refuses the gift of a red rose when she learns they are a favorite of Oscar Wilde, who's been arrested for indecency.

She is admonished to "judge not lest ye be judged," a paraphrase of Luke 6:37. A troupe of traveling actors performs the story of St. George and the dragon. Afraid she is going crazy with bizarre visions, Gemma prays to God, even though she doesn't trust the God in whom she has been brought up to believe.

Other Belief Systems

For centuries, the priestesses of the Order held all the magic of the realms. They used their power to help the dead cross over to the next life. As their power grew, they used it to influence life in the mortal world as well. They bound the magic within runes that only they could draw upon. The dead of the Order are given the choice to either cross to the realm of death and have their likenesses immortalized in stone, or to return to life to complete any work they feel they've left undone. Mythical creatures abound in the realms. In the past, they crossed into the mortal world and back. Gemma's gorgon friend within the realms tells her that there must be a balance between good and evil. With Gemma holding all the magic, the realms are no longer in balance. Gemma prays when she tries to bring Pippa across to the realm of the dead, but it isn't clear whom she is praying to.

Felicity describes ladies in society as wanting others to believe that every word they speak comes from Zeus' mouth. The gypsies and Spence's maid use various items to ward off evil, including symbols drawn in blood and rowan leaves. When the other students begin to suspect the maid of witchcraft, Felicity jokes that the bread the maid cooked tasted like the souls of children. Gemma's father exclaims that he would give up his soul if he could forget his wife. Following clues from her visions of Wilhelmina Wyatt, Gemma and her friends go to an Egyptian Hall to meet a magician. The Hall has pictures of Egyptian gods. The magician is attending a special gathering of practitioners of the paranormal, including fortune-tellers, mediums and other magicians. He tells the girls that dark forces followed Wilhelmina. The girls read passages in Wilhelmina's book that allude to druids, Gnosticism, paganism and various forms of magic. Gemma remembers her nurse telling her that her freckles were the result of the sun's blessing.

Mother Elena has a statue of Kali, an Indian goddess, in her tent. She tells Gemma that Kali helps us know ourselves. Gemma and Kartik share a vision in which they participate in an Indian wedding. In it, Kartik draws a circle in the dirt around Gemma seven times to symbolize the joining of their souls. As the evil of the Winterlands overtakes Pippa, she is convinced that she is a god. She claims that she is the way to paradise. In a scene that re-enacts a traditional Eucharist ceremony, Pippa feeds the factory girls berries from a goblet.

Authority Roles

Gemma's father is debilitated by his addiction to opium. Her brother tries to assume the role of a father in her life. At first his only concern is how Gemma's behavior reflects on his standing in London society. He also desires to be part of a gentlemen's club in order to increase his influence. Eventually he comes to accept Gemma's role in the Order and respect her decision to live life on her own terms. Miss Nightwing, Spence's headmistress, is the typical British authoritarian — stern but with true affection for her charges. Miss McCleethy repeatedly tries to convince Gemma to join the Order. Although antagonistic toward her at first, Miss McCleethy sacrifices herself to save Gemma and her friends. Felicity's father, an admiral in the British Navy, molested her as a child and is now molesting a young ward in his house.


God's name is used in vain a few times along with the words dear and oh. Jesus' name is used as an exclamation with sweet. The phrases Mary, mother of God and merciful heavens are also used as exclamations. The words b--tard, b--ch and h--- are spoken. The English swear word bloody is also used.

River men on the Thames are described as pulling dead bodies out of the water and searching them for treasures. In her diary, Gemma's mother describes a creature from the realms attacking Eugenia Spence and taking her into the Winterlands. Kartik's brother has become a powerful creature in the Winterlands. He wears a cape of animal skins in which the eyes of the animals still move. He also wears a helmet made of human skulls. Bodies hang from the trees in the Winterlands. Felicity cuts off the hand of one of the bodies that reaches out to her. In a vision Gemma sees the Winterlands' creatures kill several girls of the Order.

A fairy holds a mouse by the tail as she threatens Gemma. The fairy bites the mouse's neck. The Rakshana hold a knife to Gemma's brother's throat. Gemma unleashes the illusion of flames and phantoms in order to secure her brother's release. Then she hits him in the face to render him unconscious. In a vision, Gemma sees Eugenia Spence cut by Winterlands' creatures and consumed by the Tree of All Souls. Miss McCleethy offers herself to Pippa and the factory girls as a sacrifice. At first the factory girls beat Miss McCleethy, then Pippa beheads her with a sword. Pippa and Gemma use magic to battle. When Pippa is wounded, she is unable to use her magic to keep up the illusion of her castle. It collapses on her.

The final battle before the Tree of All Souls is filled with bloodshed. The tree itself is described as roiling with the souls of the dead. Kartik's brother stabs Gemma. Kartik kills his brother with a sword. Then the tree devours Kartik in exchange for Gemma's life.


A young man is described as having eyes that look as though he's undressing a woman. At various times, the magic within Gemma causes her to hear people's thoughts, including one man's desire to sleep with a woman. One of the centaurs makes lewd comments to Gemma. A young boy offers to keep Kartik company for money. Gemma spies on Miss McCleethy and Mr. Fowlson and sees their shadows come together as they kiss.

Much of the tension throughout the book centers on Gemma's attraction to Kartik. Afraid of hurting her, Kartik keeps his distance from her, at first. One night, when the magic overwhelms her, Gemma flies to his tent. She uses her magic to convince him he's dreaming and then kisses him. Her emotional and physical reaction to the kissing is described in detail. They share several other intense kisses when Kartik is not under the influence of magic. At one point, they lie fully clothed on Gemma's bed. Kartik rolls on top of her, and they kiss. In the realms, the two of them place their hands in a sacred symbol. They share a vision in which they are joined in an Indian wedding. Their kisses are erotic in nature, and although not described in detail, it is intimated that they make love.

At one point, Gemma and Kartik kiss while she is disguised as a boy. Kartik jokes he could be arrested if they're caught. Oscar Wilde is discussed as having been arrested on charges of indecency. Although it is not stated what he did, one character defends him saying that true love will win over bigotry. Felicity and Pippa are revealed to be in a homosexual relationship. They kiss passionately, and Felicity is seen grieving the loss of her lover after Pippa dies. Later she admits to looking forward to living in Paris because she's heard there are other lesbians there.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Drugs: Gemma's father and Wilhelmina Wyatt are both drug addicts. The effects on their health and psyche are described throughout the book.

Cutting: Ann cuts herself as a way to deal with her lower station and the other girls' attitude toward her.

Alcohol: Gemma's father drinks a brandy. Her brother comes home drunk one night.

Smoking: Gemma's father smokes tobacco in a pipe.

Lying: Ann lies to Cecily about a pearl necklace, telling her that it is a fake. She pretends to be Nan Washburn to secure an audition with a theater company. Gemma lies to Miss McCleethy and Mr. Fowlson, telling them that she no longer has the magic.

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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

12 and up


Libba Bray






Record Label



Delacorte Press, a division of Random House Publishing


On Video

Year Published



2008 New York Public Library Book for Teen Age


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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