A head and shoulders shot from the back of a young white woman in a white lacy dress

We’re looking at the first book in the bestselling Gemma Doyle series, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. The cover features the sexy shoulders of a young white woman wearing a lacy blouse and a corset. I’m guessing this is a historical fantasy romance.

I know nothing about it, but commenter Tifa asked me to have a look, so let’s just peek at the first lines of the first chapter.

June 21, 1895
Bombay, India

Oh no.

That’s colonial India. This means the white main character is among the British people engaging in the occupation, exploitation, and oppression of the Indian population. During the roughly 200 years that the British occupied India, they:

  • Demolished the Indian economy, reducing it from 27% of global GDP to 3% of global GDP.
  • Exacerbated famines, leading to the starvation of about 35 million Indians.
  • Played Hindus and Muslims against each other to maintain control, leading to the partition of India and Pakistan.

Whenever I’ve seen stories about the British elite who’ve lived in colonial India, it’s always in service of portraying them as put-upon because they’ve been stranded so far from “civilization.” Oh, you poor oppressors, however will you fit into London society?

Is it possible for this portrayal to be sensitive? Since the main character is white, the chance is maybe .01%. Even if she opposes colonialism, her experience is being prioritized over the Indians being exploited. She’ll just be a white savior.

All right, Bray, you made this bed. Let’s see how you lie in it.

Novelty Can Lead to Exoticism

“Please tell me that’s not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening.”

This is the kind of opening hook writers create when they don’t have anything interesting happening. They find something insignificant to turn into a one-liner. I guess someone might be curious over what “that” is. Two out of five stars.

I am staring into the hissing face of a cobra. A surprisingly pink tongue slithers in and out of a cruel mouth while an Indian man whose eyes are the blue of blindness inclines his head toward my mother and explains in Hindi that cobras make very good eating.

And racism in the second paragraph. Bray, we’re going to have a talk.

But backing up, the protagonist is staring right into a hissing cobra. That’s pretty serious. Is that cobra about to bite her in the face, thereby killing her? Bray wants us to be a little concerned about this. That’s why she put it up front; it’s a hook. But then the cobra doesn’t kill the protagonist, and there’s no explanation for why. Has it been defanged? Is it in a cage? I don’t know how cobras are usually kept at marketplaces. Maybe the protagonist isn’t actually close to it. Whatever the case, the hook is essentially a lie.

Also, that second sentence is loooooong. Sometimes super long sentences are appropriate, but look at how much the subject matter of this one changes. It goes from the snake, to the Indian man, to his conversation with the mother. I would break that monster up.

So what’s racist? To start, this segment about eating cobras is clearly designed to make a white Western audience recoil. Presuming that what other cultures eat is somehow grosser than the stuff we eat is a way of casting them as an exotic and savage other. And it has a real effect on marginalized people. In particular, Asian people who bring a homemade lunch to work or school in Western countries are likely to face ridicule for what they’re eating.

Do Indians even eat cobra that often? I did some brief research but wasn’t able to find much. India is home to a huge diversity of cultures, so maybe some of them do. But if Bray decided to feature cobra simply because it’s sensational and not because it’s a common dish, that’s straight-up Orientalism.

Update 7/30/22: Two commenters from India say they’ve never heard of anyone eating cobras. Don’t make up stuff about other cultures!

Finally, I am extremely suspicious of this description of the Indian merchant whose “eyes are the blue of blindness.” A blind character would be fine, but the context strongly suggests that his description is intended to make him exotic. That makes it both racist and ableist, since blindness is being used to make a character seem strange.

My mother reaches out a white-gloved finger to stroke the snake’s back. “What do you think, Gemma? Now that you’re sixteen, will you be dining on cobra?”

The slithery thing makes me shudder. “I think not, thank you.”

The old, blind Indian man smiles toothlessly and brings the cobra closer. It’s enough to send me reeling back where I bump into a wooden stand filled with little statues of Indian deities. One of the statues, a woman who is all arms with a face bent on terror, falls to the ground. Kali, the destroyer. Lately, Mother has accused me of keeping her as my unofficial patron saint.

Oh, you poor wealthy white girl, having to deal with those pesky people you’re oppressing!

I make fun, but at some level this is actually how Bray wants us to react. The book will be much more engaging if we sympathize with Gemma for being out of her element.

And all the issues I mentioned about the previous excerpt have solidified. The blind man is also toothless and brings the cobra close enough to freak the protagonist out. As I suspected, earlier Gemma was looking at the cobra from a distance. That’s not what “staring in the face” implies.

Then Bray brings Hindu religion into this. Oh dear. I don’t know much about Kali or how she should be portrayed; however, even a five-minute internet search reveals that she’s a great deal more complex than simply being a destroyer. And making references to her like this in service to a story about a white girl in colonial India is just a bad idea. Those beliefs are sacred to people less powerful than you. Leave them alone.

Lately, Mother and I haven’t been getting on very well. She claims it’s because I’ve reached an impossible age. I state emphatically to anyone who will listen that it’s all because she refuses to take me to London.

“I hear in London, you don’t have to defang your meals first,” I say.

eGRui;wbvgUD B6IargH:VrNuisp

Sorry, that was me banging my head on the keyboard.

Gemma’s line shows pretty clearly that she considers London to be more “civilized.” So our protagonist is racist and spoiled. Wonderful.

We’re moving past the cobra man and into the throng of people crowding every inch of Bombay’s frenzied marketplace. Mother doesn’t answer but waves away an organ-grinder and his monkey. It’s unbearably hot. Beneath my cotton dress and crinolines, sweat streaks down my body. The flies—my most ardent admirers—dart about my face. I swat at one of the little winged beasts, but it escapes and I can almost swear I hear it mocking me. My misery is reaching epidemic proportions.

Overhead, the clouds are thick and dark, giving warning that this is monsoon season, when floods of rain could fall from the sky in a matter of minutes. In the dusty bazaar the turbaned men chatter and squawk and bargain, lifting brightly colored silks toward us with brown, sunbaked hands. Everywhere there are carts lined with straw baskets offering every sort of ware and edible—thin, coppery vases; wooden boxes carved into intricate flower designs; and mangos ripening in the heat.

Okay, I’ll say something nice. I like this little battle between Gemma and the flies. However, Gemma has probably been living in India for many years, and this “unbearably hot” description makes it seem like the climate is new to her. Does she have air conditioning at home in 1895?

Bray spends two whole paragraphs describing the Indian marketplace. It’s not just for scene setting; she’s using her setting for novelty. The problem is that people are never novel to themselves, nor is their own culture novel to them. So using another culture for novelty means twisting the depiction for the purposes of entertaining outsiders. The result is exoticism.

I will admit, however, that her wordcraft is pretty strong and she’s good at using evocative details. Instead of just saying there are baskets with a variety of stuff in them, she gives specific examples so we can imagine it better. She has sights, sounds, tactile sensations… I just wish I knew what the place smelled like.

From a scene-setting perspective, Bray should have mentioned the clouds are thick and dark earlier. If you say the temperature is hot, it’s easy to assume that means it’s sunny out. When I got to the dark clouds, I had to go back and revise my mental image of the scene.

Protagonists Shouldn’t Be All Flaws

Next, we find out they’re on their way to visit another wealthy British woman for lunch. Gemma complains that they’re walking there instead of riding in a carriage.

Sarita, our long-suffering housekeeper, offers pomegranates in her leathery hand. “Memsahib, these are very nice. Perhaps we will take them to your father, yes?”

If I were a good daughter, I’d bring some to my father, watch his blue eyes twinkle as he slices open the rich, red fruit, then eats the tiny seeds with a silver spoon just like a proper British gentleman.

“He’ll only stain his white suit,” I grumble. My mother starts to say something to me, thinks better of it, sighs—as usual. We used to go everywhere together, my mother and I—visiting ancient temples, exploring local customs, watching Hindu festivals, staying up late to see the streets bloom with candlelight. Now, she barely takes me on social calls. It’s as if I’m a leper without a colony.

“He will stain his suit. He always does,” I mumble in my defense, though no one is paying me a bit of attention except for the organ-grinder and his monkey.

Of course they have an Indian housekeeper who has to put up with them regardless of how racist they are.

We’re also starting to see signs that Bray fully intends Gemma to be immature and petty. Gemma admits that she’s not being a good daughter and gets defensive after only a sigh from her mother. Like many privileged people who are called out on their behavior, Gemma is also comparing herself to people who are genuinely facing great hardship. While these details tells me where the story may be going, it doesn’t make this depiction a good idea.

At least there seems to be some depth to Gemma’s relationship with her mother. Maybe that will develop into something interesting.

Next, Bray spends a few paragraphs with an organ-grinder and his monkey, because of course she wants to bring out the novelty of being in India. Gemma continues to constantly complain about everything. Since she’s rude to the monkey, her mother gives the organ-grinder some money.

Bray gives us this interesting paragraph.

“Yes, I am sixteen. Sixteen. An age at which most decent girls have been sent for schooling in London.” I give the word decent an extra push, hoping to appeal to some maternal sense of shame and propriety.

Giving a word an “extra push” is what italics are for. But instead of just italicizing “decent,” Bray decides to describe later how it’s been emphasized, forcing readers to go back and imagine the line differently from how they already perceived it. My best guess is that she thought italicizing both “sixteen” and “decent” in the same line of dialogue was too much, but this solution is really awkward.

Next, we briefly learn that her older brother did get to go to London because he’s a boy. At least that’s a little sympathetic.

“It’s not fair. I’ll never have a season. I’ll end up a spinster with hundreds of cats who all drink milk from china bowls.” I’m whining. It’s unattractive, but I find I’m powerless to stop.

“I see,” Mother says, finally. “Would you like to be paraded around the ballrooms of London society like some prize horse there to have its breeding capabilities evaluated? Would you still think London was so charming when you were the subject of cruel gossip for the slightest infraction of the rules? London’s not as idyllic as your grandmother’s letters make it out to be.”

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen it.”

“Gemma . . .” Mother’s tone is all warning even as her smile is constant for the Indians. Mustn’t let them think we British ladies are so petty as to indulge in arguments on the streets. We only discuss the weather, and when the weather is bad, we pretend not to notice.

We get another comment from Gemma acknowledging that she’s being an ass. Increasingly, it looks clear that authorial endorsement is with Gemma’s mother, not Gemma. In contrast to Gemma, her mother thinks London society is sexist and cruel, and her mother’s “smile is constant” for the Indians. A white Western audience is supposed to think that because of this, she’s super gracious.

Think about this: If we claim being polite to Indians is gracious, what behaviors are simply okay for the white elite in India?

These kinds of portrayals are a way of lowering the bar for privileged people. We’re supposed to ignore that Gemma’s mother is participating in the occupation and exploitation of India because she smiles at people and gives the organ-grinder a few coins. But being polite doesn’t make someone a saint; it’s just basic human decency.

In another context, I would instead conclude that Gemma’s mother is putting on a polite show because as a woman, she is required to. But here Bray is specifically mentioning that she smiles at Indians of a lower socioeconomic class.

Sarita chuckles nervously. “How is it that memsahib is now a young lady? It seems only yesterday you were in the nursery. Oh, look, dates! Your favorite.” She breaks into a gap-toothed smile that makes every deeply etched wrinkle in her face come alive. It’s hot and I suddenly want to scream, to run away from everything and everyone I’ve ever known.

“Those dates are probably rotting on the inside. Just like India.”

Dear god. This is supposed to be a childish comeback, but for one thing, Gemma is sixteen. For another, there is a rot inside India – the British Empire. It actively dismantled Indian industry so that the British could process raw materials from India instead, sucking the value from the Indian economy. In that context, some British brat insulting the country they’re occupying this way is gross.

It’s looking very likely that Bray is intending Gemma’s racism to be the start of a character arc. This means she’ll learn to be less racist during the story. Mythcreants strongly recommends against real-world bigotry arcs, and I hope A Great and Terrible Beauty helps to demonstrate why.

The protagonist is supposed to be a magnet for reader emotional investment. What kind of reader would get invested in Gemma? Most likely a white woman who is relatively unbothered by Gemma’s racism, not necessarily out of maliciousness, but at least out of obliviousness to the power dynamics here.

Even discounting the racism, Bray isn’t giving us any reason to root for Gemma. In one of my articles on likability, I mention that when a character is disliked, “it’s often because the storyteller is so focused on the character’s flaws that the rest of the character is neglected.” This is exactly what I’m talking about. At every opportunity, Bray is hitting the “racist and spoiled” button as hard as she can. She doesn’t need to go that far to make an impression.

Being spoiled could make an okay character arc, but Gemma desperately needs another side to her personality. We know what’s bad about her; now what’s good about her?

Audit Your Character Description

Let me compile all the description Bray has written about Indians so far.

  • an Indian man whose eyes are the blue of blindness
  • The old, blind Indian man smiles toothlessly
  • turbaned men chatter and squawk and bargain, lifting brightly colored silks toward us with brown, sunbaked hands
  • Sarita, our long-suffering housekeeper, offers pomegranates in her leathery hand
  • She breaks into a gap-toothed smile that makes every deeply etched wrinkle in her face come alive

Their skin is not just brown, but sunbaked, leathery, and wrinkled. They are missing teeth. And the guy at the market happens to be blind. Again, disabilities or physical characteristics like wrinkles are fine things for characters to have. But this pattern suggests Bray is using these physical characteristics to portray Indians as exotic and unattractive. Using disabilities for this purpose casts disability in a negative light as well.

Now let’s look at how Bray describes Gemma’s mother.

“Gemma, that will be quite enough.” Mother fixes me with her glass-green eyes. Penetrating and wise, people call them. I have the same large, upturned green eyes. The Indians say they are unsettling, disturbing. Like being watched by a ghost. 

In comparison to wrinkled brown skin and missing teeth, Gemma and her mother have penetrating and wise green eyes. Just to throw in an extra bit of racism, Indians are superstitious and afraid of these green eyes. At this point, I have to guess that Gemma will be “a great and terrible beauty” to the Indians.

Remember that a protagonist who is feared is still getting candy. This is a way of using Indians for white wish fulfillment. It reminds me of the racist trope of island cultures assuming white visitors are gods. It surmises both that people of color are so “primitive” that they are easily impressed and that white people somehow seem impressive or even superior to them.

Let’s finish the paragraph.

Sarita smiles down at her feet, keeps her hands busy adjusting her brown sari. I feel a tinge of guilt for saying such a nasty thing about her home. Our home, though I don’t really feel at home anywhere these days.

That’s nice, Gemma, but I still hate you. And I don’t believe for a second that you consider India your home. I don’t even believe you’ve lived here your whole life. You would have gotten over the cobra at the market when you were eight.

A train comes nearby, attracting the pensive attention of Gemma’s mother.

[Gemma’s mother] places a hand on her throat, fingers the necklace hanging there, a small silver medallion of an all-seeing eye atop a crescent moon. A gift from a villager, Mother said. Her good-luck charm. I’ve never seen her without it.

So Gemma’s mother has a magic medallion that an Indian gave to her. Why aren’t Indian villagers using their own magic medallions? Why give one to a white woman from an empire that is occupying their land?

Need a Fight? Let Both Characters Be a Little Wrong

Hey, guess what? After having nothing to do but put up with Gemma so far, we finally get some plot!

Mother pulls her gaze away from the train, drops her hand from her necklace. “Yes. Come. We’ll have a lovely time at Mrs. Talbot’s. I’m sure she’ll have lovely cakes just for your birthday—”

A man in a white turban and thick black traveling cloak stumbles into her from behind, bumping her hard.

“A thousand pardons, honorable lady.” He smiles, offers a deep bow to excuse his rudeness. When he does, he reveals a young man behind him wearing the same sort of strange cloak. For a moment, the young man and I lock eyes. He isn’t much older than I am, probably seventeen if a day, with brown skin, a full mouth, and the longest eyelashes I have ever seen. I know I’m not supposed to find Indian men attractive, but I don’t see many young men and I find I’m blushing in spite of myself. He breaks our gaze and cranes his neck to see over the hordes.

A wild love interest appears! And he’s so sexy he can overcome Gemma’s racism. Or maybe it’s because there are apparently no young men in the marketplace; all the men are old, toothless, and have wrinkled skin. No doubt he will patiently teach Gemma that Indians and their culture have value rather than date someone who isn’t racist.

Also, I’m itching to add a paragraph break before “For a moment.” It’s weird to have a whole paragraph about the love interest that starts with a dialogue line by someone else. It’s long and could use splitting anyway.

“You should be more careful,” Sarita barks at the older man, threatening him with a blow from her arm. “You better not be a thief or you will be punished.”

“No, no, memsahib, only I am terribly clumsy.” He drops his smile and with it the cheerful simpleton routine. He whispers low to my mother in perfectly accented English. “Circe is near.”

It makes no sense to me, just the ramblings of a very clever thief said to distract us. I start to say as much to my mother but the look of sheer panic on her face stops me cold. Her eyes are wild as she whips around and scans the crowded streets like she’s looking for a lost child.

On one hand, I like that Sarita’s a badass. Since she’s threatening a guy who’s probably pretty well off, there’s not that much to be concerned about here. But on the other hand, this follows a pattern in many stories of depicting powerful people as kind, clueless, and not responsible for the behavior of people under them. Gemma’s mother isn’t admonishing Sarita, so that means she approves of threatening to hit people. Does Sarita ever threaten to hit people who are more vulnerable?

But it looks like the newcomer probably works for or with Gemma’s mother, because he’s warning her that an antagonist is near. Thankfully, adding a mysterious and nearby antagonist that Gemma’s mother is clearly afraid of raises the tension of this scene.

“What is it? What’s the matter?” I ask.

The men are suddenly gone. They’ve disappeared into the moving crowd, leaving only their footprints in the dust. “What did that man say to you?”

My mother’s voice is edged in steel. “It’s nothing. He was obviously deranged. The streets are not safe these days.” I have never heard my mother sound this way. So hard. So afraid. “Gemma, I think it’s best if I go to Mrs. Talbot’s alone.”

“But—but what about the cake?” It’s a ridiculous thing to say, but it’s my birthday and while I don’t want to spend it in Mrs. Talbot’s sitting room, I certainly don’t want to waste the day alone at home, all because some black-cloaked madman and his cohort have spooked my mother.

This excerpt has some more awkward paragraph breaking. Gemma asks a question, there’s a break, and then the next paragraph describes the mysterious men plus another line from Gemma. Some readers might be confused by the way she speaks two paragraphs in a row without marking the second line as hers. And the second line just doesn’t fit with the comment on the men.

I would do something like this:

Example

“What is it? What’s the matter?” I ask.

The men are suddenly gone. They’ve disappeared into the moving crowd, leaving only their footprints in the dust.

I frown at my mother. “What did that man say to you?”

Using body language for the second line keeps the dialogue tags from getting repetitive.

It’s also strange that Gemma is asking what the man said when she already heard every word. Bray wants the audience to know more than Gemma does, but we’re pretty deep in Gemma’s head. So we have this awkward song and dance where Gemma is not taking this situation seriously despite perceiving it as something very serious.

Unfortunately, it makes her feel even more petty, because she’s now complaining in the midst of a crisis. She should know her mother is afraid for a reason, but she dismisses it.

Naturally, Gemma and her mother start bickering over Gemma going home. Gemma’s mother tries to offer a few olive branches to console her. Gemma reacts in a predictable manner.

Mother’s green eyes find mine. There is something there I’ve never seen before. A vast and terrifying anger that stops my breath. Quick as it comes on her, it’s gone and she is Mother again. “You’re overtired and need some rest. Tonight, we’ll celebrate and I’ll let you drink some champagne.”

I’ll let you drink some champagne. It’s not a promise—it’s an excuse to get rid of me.

And then…

“Here, I’ll let you wear my necklace, hmmm? Go on, wear it. I know you’ve always admired it.”

I stand, mute, allowing her to adorn me in a necklace I have indeed always wanted, but now it weighs me down, a shiny, hateful thing. A bribe. Mother gives another quick glance to the dusty marketplace before letting her green eyes settle on mine.

Now we know this is serious, because Gemma’s mother just passed on her magic necklace. For some reason, Gemma now hates it because it’s being offered as a concession for making her go home.

Altogether, it feels like Bray is trying really hard to keep Gemma mad at her mother while simultaneously refusing to let Gemma’s mother do anything wrong. Bray, if you like the mother that much, maybe she should be your main character?

Wait, it gets better.

“There. You look . . . all grown up.” She presses her gloved hand to my cheek, holds it there as if to memorize it with her fingers. “I’ll see you at home.”

I don’t want anyone to notice the tears that are pooling in my eyes, so I try to think of the wickedest thing I can say and then it’s on my lips as I bolt from the marketplace.

“I don’t care if you come home at all.”

It’s easy to miss in all this text, but Gemma literally just runs off here. Sure, why not? It’s hard to make her worse at this point.

Unfortunately, this kind of pettiness is a common symptom of forced character drama. If you want to make your characters fight, but you aren’t sure how, you can end up with this kind of thing. Instead of genuine conflict, the characters look like jerks that snap at people for no reason.

Looking at the Big Picture

After that last line, can you guess what happens next? Obviously, her mother is getting the axe. After all, we can’t have her returning to take the magic necklace back from Gemma.

This means Bray made Gemma despicable not just to give her a character arc about being less spoiled and racist, but also to make her feel guilty about her mother’s death or disappearance. But in doing this, Bray’s hand was too heavy, and she took Gemma’s likability for granted.

She could have used some of this space to show Gemma’s strengths and then built up an argument where Gemma’s mother actually said something wrong. We can sympathize with Gemma’s guilt over her mother without that mother being 100% perfect. Bray could have even gotten us to sympathize a little more with Gemma’s desire to be in London, but tearing down India was not the way to do it.

Of course, none of that would fix the story’s use of the culture of an occupied country as wish fulfillment for one of the occupiers. This depiction of India is designed for consumption by white people.

That means:

  • Ignoring the harm white people are doing in this place and time
  • Exotifying and mystifying Indians and their culture so they offer more entertainment to white people
  • Making everything revolve around the white character

This is cultural appropriation. It is the use of a marginalized culture for the benefit of a privileged one, and it’s more than just an insult. With lots of depictions like these, the stories of marginalized people are quickly drowned out, and the white view becomes the dominant narrative. Tales by white people can easily push marginalized people’s own stories out of the market.

It’s unlikely that Bray is doing harm intentionally. But bigotry doesn’t require malice; it only requires ignorance. It only requires doing what’s good for you, and people like you, without listening to the other side of the story. That’s why we all have to educate ourselves and continually improve our work. Writing one appropriative story doesn’t make you a terrible person, but it does mean you should do better next time.

As for this story, I’m happy to say it leaves India in a chapter or two. Most of the story actually takes place at a finishing school in London. So while Bray made a pretty terrible first impression, it’s possible this problem only affects the opening. If only Bray hadn’t opened her story in India in the first place.

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