A Jewel of a Book
Author: Kerstin Gier and Anthea Bell (translator)
Although I make no excuses for reading — and fully enjoying — young-adult fiction in my decrepit thirties, I do like to read with a ghostly specter of my younger self on my shoulder to see what she thinks of the books. Would she find the female protagonists believable and admirable? Would the writing come alive for her, and the stories feel compelling? Would she learn anything or be inspired to do further reading on a related subject? I pondered these questions frequently while reading the international bestseller Ruby Red, first in a forthcoming trilogy, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (who also translated the Inkheart books).
As with many fantasy books, there’s a lot of rules and backstory that you’re just going to have to accept at face value, because that’s the way it is, so let’s get to it: Gwyneth is a pretty typical, somewhat flighty 16-year-old who lives in a somewhat creepy old mansion in London. The mansion belongs to her imposing grandmother, Lady Arista; Gwyneth lives there with her mother, little brother, and little sister after their father’s death because the mother couldn’t raise the children alone. The family is, to put it mildly, unusual: Gwyneth has always had the ability to see and talk to ghosts, although no one really believes her, and the family has a “time travel gene” (stay with me here) that manifests every few generations between the ages of 16 and 17. Due to various prophecies and mathematical calculations, it was expected that Gwyneth’s cousin, Charlotte — the two were born just a day apart — is the foretold time-traveler; she has been prepared all her life, receiving a classical lady’s education and mastering world history so she’d be able to fit in wherever in time she found herself. But when it becomes obvious that Gwyneth is the real time-traveler, not Charlotte, chaos breaks loose. An old feud involving a renegade time-traveling relative, who stole a priceless device called a chronograph and fled into the past, divides Gwyneth’s family all over again. Meanwhile, Gwyneth is popping in and out of time uncontrollably in her modern-day school uniform. As Gwyneth’s time-travel crash course hastily begins, the hunky Gideon is assigned to be her minder. The two bicker like cats and dogs, which basically guarantees that they’re destined to fall in love, but what will Charlotte — who was raised to think of Gideon as her future betrothed — think about their growing attraction?
I’m inclined to give Ruby Red a pass on certain flaws, because it’s obviously the first book in a trilogy, and there’s a lot of ground to cover when you’re introducing readers to a new world with lots of arcane magical rules. But so many of the rules are arbitrary and confusing (you can’t travel more than 500 years in the past, you can’t travel to the future, you can’t travel within your own lifetime, you can bring things back but not living beings, you can only be gone for 3 hours), and Gwyneth’s (and the reader’s) natural questions are ignored or brusquely dismissed by the grownups. It’s one thing to have a top-secret cult of mysteries, but kids spend enough time being blown off with, “You’ll understand when you’re older” — they shouldn’t have to get the same treatment from a fantasy novel. At the end of volume one, we’re really no closer to understanding what’s going on or how/why time travel works, which is disappointing.
Likewise, I’m willing to believe that some things are lost in translation, although Bell does a good job making it work for English-language readers. The biggest problem is the dialogue, which often feels vapid and slack, as though it’s been stripped of slangy expressions that didn’t quite translate. Gwyneth and her best friend, Helpful Exposition — oops, I mean “Lesley” — giggle and simper about boys and fashion, more like tweens than like young adults who could legally hold a job or drive a car. Gwyneth claims to like history, but has such a poor grasp of English history as to be useless in any given time-travel scenario; she’s mortally offended when Gideon dismisses her as a mall-loving airhead, but isn’t able to offer much to refute it. As a young reader, I wanted to see smart, brave female characters kicking ass and showing off their skills so that I could dream about being more like them. There’s something to be said for making a heroine identifiable, but Gwyneth is pretty uninteresting, and Lesley isn’t even a character, just a steady feed of Wikipedia snippets.
However, despite its problems, this is an extremely readable book that moves along at a good clip, considering not very much actually happens. The time-travel scenes in particular are kind of a letdown, partly because as a beginning time-traveler, she doesn’t stay for very long. I’m hoping that things will pick up, and Gwyneth will start to come into her own as a protagonist, once they take the training wheels off and she has to start battling the inevitable Forces of Evil on her own. But I like to think my younger self would have found something more intellectually stimulating to read in the meantime.
— Stephanie P.