BOOK REVIEW: A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1), by Libba Bray

Date(s) read: September 17 – 20, 2012
Genre: YA Historical Fiction

1. A Great and Terrible Beauty Amazon | Goodreads
2. Rebel Angels
3. The Sweet Far Thing

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.

My Thoughts
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.


© 2012, Reading In Winter. All rights reserved.


35 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1), by Libba Bray

  1. Well, good for you for finally being able to strike this one off your tbr! It’s been on mine for quite a long time, as well. I didn’t know it was set in India?! Now THAT’S neat. I’m wracking my brain, trying to think if I’ve ever read a book that was set in India and I’m coming up blank. I can’t wait to be introduced to Libba Bray’s writing someday myself! Really excellent review, Kristilyn!

  2. YAY! I’m so happy that overall, you enjoyed this. We talked about it in book club the other night, and I really need to read this series. I’ve had the books for a long while myself. Now that I’ve read The Diviners, which is also historical fantasy, I’m wicked excited for more of that from Libba.

    I’m not surprised you loved the characters. I think Libba excels at writing vibrant characters! I look forward to the setting, too, and some racy romance!

  3. I’m not a fan of historical fiction but I do love a good story with a boarding school! I’ve been staying away from this just because of the historical aspect (and will continue to do so) but I am happy that you enjoyed it so much! It’s always so great when the secondary characters are just as well developed than the MC, that’s not often achieved I find. Great review, Kristilyn!

  4. I loved that series, and I have to say that I think each book got better and better!
    I’m also looking forward to crossing some stuff off my TBR in the next month *Clockwork Prince, cough, cough* now that the deluge of new fall releases is slowing down…

  5. YAY! I recently got my hands on the second book in this series, and I can’t wait to start soon! I agree that a lot of the world was really unknown, but… I thought it worked well given that Gemma didn’t know much, either. (And I just love Libba Bray, so perhaps I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. *shrugs*)

    • I look forward to trying MORE Libba Bray. I have The Diviners and I know my library has the audio for Beauty Queens, so hopefully soon! And I want to continue with this series — I hear it gets better and better!

  6. This is one of my favorite series of ALL TIME, Kristilyn. ALL TIME. And to hear you enjoyed it makes me SO HAPPY INSIDE. But seriously, read the next two books. They are even better than the first one. There’s a LOT going on, but it’s so beautifully written. I just love Libba. These books legitimately took over my life for awhile. I couldn’t think, eat, work without these books taking up the majority of my brain space.

  7. My sister keeps offering me her copy of this, and I’ve never really been interested. in reading it – but after your review, I think I’ll give it a go!! (I read Beauty Queens and laughed the whole darn way – but this sounds so very different!)

  8. I love stories about boarding schools (The Daring Game was one of my favs growing up) and I usually enjoy historical fiction too. I’ve been wanting to read something by Libba Bray for a long time now…this one and Going Bovine have been on my radar for some time now. I love this cover as well! It’s so gorgeous. Great review!

  9. I tried to read this one years ago and I gave up at like 75%. I wasn’t into it at all,the writing was very difficult for me but back then I didn’t read quite as much and I’ve been wanting to give it another try. My taste has definitely evolved and it sounds like I would enjoy it. The world building and characters have me intrigued. Plus, I remember NOTHING from when I first tried it anyways >.<

    • You made it a whopping 75% and gave up? Wow! I think I would’ve pushed to the end at that point. There are a few books I’ve read in the past and hated, but think the same thing as you, that my tastes have changed. I hope to give them a second chance at some point!

  10. Woohoo for crossing this one off your list. It’s been on mine for awhile as well. I didn’t know that it was set in India either and I’ve been kind of on an India kick lately. Perhaps I’ll have to get to this one sooner than later.

  11. I bought this sometime ago, for many of the reasons you did. I just pulled it out since you reminded me why I wanted it in the first place, wonderful review Kristilyn

    • There are a LOT of series books where I need to reread the first book (or books!) in order to continue. Though, I like rereading, so it’s okay! I hope you continue with the series soon!

  12. Pingback: Clock Rewinders on a Book Binge (12) | Reading In Winter

  13. After reading Beauty Queens & starting The Diviners, I’d say she has an interesting style. Not always as smooth or complete as I’d like, but usually a great story in the end. Glad you overall liked it. I’ll have to see about adding it my shelf.

    • I still want to read The Diviners, and I know my library has Beauty Queens on audio, so I’ll have to check that one out, too! I’ve heard that Libba Bray narrating is pretty great. I do like her style — hopefully I can continue on with the series soon!

My home is where my books are. - Ellen Thompson

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