I first discovered author Libba Bray by accident. I was at the library, looking for a book by Ann Brashares. When that book wasn’t in stock, I noticed one that happened to be nearby on the shelf. A Great and Terrible Beauty is a lush historical fantasy and coming of age story. I was hooked and read all three of the Gemma Doyle books. After too many trips back to bookstores and libraries with no new novels by Bray, I stopped bothering to check.
Recently, though, I rediscovered Bray, again by accident. In a college library, looking for a teaching resource, I noticed one of her newer novels. Beauty Queens was haphazardly stuck on the end of a bookshelf near Encyclopedias and writing style guides.
Beauty Queens marks a huge departure from her early novels and is thoroughly modern, witty, and politically engaged. At first glance, this book would be easy to dismiss. With a bikini-babe on the front cover, I admit that I wouldn’t have checked it out if it had been written by a different author. The basic premise is that a plane full of teenage beauty queens crashes onto a tropical island. At first, there are the expected “cat fights,” concerns about tanning, and overall superficiality. However, it is quickly apparent that there is more than meets the eye.
The Beauty Queen contestants have their own hidden agendas and backstories. One, for example, is really there to try to expose the pageant system and launch a career in journalism. Another entrant is transgendered, and only entered in order to get the necessary funds for a sex change operation. Although they have been trained to act vapid, many of them are actually very intelligent and well educated.
The island also has hidden depth. Although it seems to be a deserted island, it is actually a secret base for The Corporation. By the end of the book, the girls realize that they are not alone on their island, and are busy fighting for their lives. The real danger lies not in the wild animals, poisonous fruits or unpredictable weather, but with the manipulative Corporation and their minions.
Take these elements and throw in exploding hair remover, handsome pirates and an Elvis -obsessed dictator. Yes, it is as completely ridiculous as it sounds, but it is also more fun than I would have anticipated.
The entire book includes messages from the Corporation, snippets about TV shows and political information that is meant to be a political satire. The ambiguously names Corporation reveals a lot about the power of advertising, marketing and media in our own society.
For me, this novel never reached the level of the Gemma Doyle trilogy. However, it does confirm that Libba Bray is an author worth checking the shelves for.