Celia Rees was one of my favourite authors when I was a teenager. She wrote Witch Child, which it felt like most of the girls in my year group read and devoured. I also really enjoyed its sequel Sorceress. Then there was Pirates! which I reread repeatedly. Truth or Dare was another book of hers that stuck in my mind. So although it has been about fifteen years since I last read one of her novels, I was actually pretty excited when I saw that she had written a young adult novel based around the Brontë juvenilia. I thought this had the potential to be a really intriguing re-imagining of the Angria and Gondal mythology. What I read though was just … odd.
The novel opens with Tom in a coma. He’s a teenage boy who has had some form of unspecified accident that merits the social media hashtag #heroinacoma. Watching over him is his cheating girlfriend Natalie and his “best friend” (who is the one Natalie is cheating with), Milo. With greater sincere concern, another girl Lucy comes every day to read to him and his nurse Joe is also keeping a close eye. But then Milo sneakily puts something in his eye which is described as like a Babelfish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and suddenly comatose Tom’s dreams switch him to the world of Glass Town.
There are obvious issues with this set up. It’s full of clichés. The catalyst for the drama is a vaguely described Babelfish-esque ‘thingummy’ which never really hangs together. The nurse Joe is a real deus ex machina available to step in and solve everything when the plot gets boxed into a corner. It was such a disappointment compared to the far more richly-realised stories in Rees’ other novels. I also never really understood what the ‘point’ of the story was. It seemed like Tom just had a brief (albeit dramatic) tour of Glass Town and then … what? He decided he liked the Brontës and had a day out to Haworth? Is that it?
It’s such a shame because Rees’ descriptions of the Glass Town universe were genuinely interesting. The glass buildings, the political insurrection, the vividly drawn characters – even Charles Wellesley’s unsteady worry that they might all be fictional was intriguing. I had a look at some other people’s reviews and was interested to note how several of them were rather baffled as they came to it as YA fans rather than Brontëphiles and so could not keep track of what was going on. While my past reading meant I avoided this, I think that some kind of character index or even a map would have made it more accessible for others.
One idea that I found quite thought-provoking was the parallel drawn between the Angria and Gondal stories and modern video gaming. Other than Spyro and The Sims, I am not much of a gamer. However, in the spirit of sharing your partner’s interests, I did have a go at Bioshock a few years ago. While I did not really get on with the gameplay (I’m not quick enough on the trigger so I resorted beating the mad surgeon to death with a spanner to get past the first Boss level), I could really see how it was in itself a different form of story-telling. Boy Who Reads Not A Lot loved Bioshock as a teenager and I could understand why. The Brontë siblings used their Angria and Gondal characters as avatars in a very similar way and it was really interesting to see Rees explore that idea further. It’s just a shame that this plot strand never really goes anywhere.
Although I did enjoy the section of the book in Glass Town, on the whole it failed to engage me. I found Augusta a rather flat heroine, which was another disappointment because I know Rees is capable of much more impressive female characterisation. I also found the ‘romance’ between Tom and Augusta … baffling. Low chemistry doesn’t even begin to describe it. Even the glimpses we got of the real Emily felt under-drawn and I felt really sad that we didn’t see Gondal as a collaborative enterprise between Emily and Anne. I had expected Glass Town Wars to reflect more directly the battle between the opposing camps of Charlotte and Branwell versus Emily and Anne as each tried to maintain dominance over the narrative. Instead we got this limp internal struggle and it felt utterly lack-lustre. I continue to think highly of Celia Rees as a writer but sadly Glass Town Wars does not put up much of a fight.
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Published by Pushkin Press on November 1st 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Historical, General, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fantasy & Magic
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