A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy–jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.
Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order.
The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order. A Great and Terrible Beauty is an impressive first book in what should prove to be a fascinating trilogy.
The first book in the Gemma Doyle series came out YEARS ago and I’ve been ogling its gorgeous cover ever since. This year I finally got around to BUYING the books in the series, and now – as the year is in its final quarter – I can finally say I’ve started to read it AND have been introduced to the wonderful writing of Libba Bray.
The main thing that called me to this book (if we’re not counting the cover and all its gorgeousness) was the fact that it takes place in 1895 at a boarding school. I adore historical fiction novels and was immediately swept up in the writing and the school the instant I started reading. I was also pleased to read about Gemma’s upbringing and how it didn’t take place in the magical city of London, but in India with her mother.
The characters were awesome. It took some time for me to warm up to Gemma’s character, as she comes across as quite snotty in the beginning, but I really loved her towards the middle and end of the book. I got a kick out of her brother, Tom, who’s really only present in the beginning, and what an (for lack of a better word) ass he is. I’m not a feminist by any means, but Tom’s attitude towards women really brought that wee bit of feminism out in me.
Gemma’s friends were a perfect blend of characters, the whole group carrying the story in a whirlwind of turning pages. It may have taken me a few days to read the entire story, but I do admit that if it weren’t for the antics of Pippa, Anne, and Felicity – and even the appearances of Kartik (can we have more of him in the sequel, please?) – I may not have enjoyed the book so much. I loved seeing them change from the characters they were in the beginning of the story, to what they ended up to be in the end. It made me very excited for the sequel.
As this is my introduction to Libba Bray’s writing, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. There was a mix of friendship and foe, with lots of magic, twists and turns, and plenty of humour. While reading the back cover, I didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did, but there were some very charming lines in the book.
While I did really enjoy the novel, I have to say that my only real qualm about it was the fact that the plot is very vague – I knew what was going on the whole time and wasn’t confused in the least, but at times I questioned what exactly the main focal point of the novel was and what was the driving force behind the story. Was it to have control of the realms? To save Gemma’s mother? To release themselves from the lives typical of their stations?
Also, having read plenty of YA books in the past year, I have to say that the world building in this story wasn’t exactly the greatest. I wanted more depth and more action! I also wanted more romance, though the romance that is in the story seemed quite racy for the time the story takes place.
Still, I’m very eager to continue reading this series, as well as some other books by Libba Bray. This may not be the best novel of the genre, but it’s still a charming and dark tale that will keep you reading.
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