A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Pages [hardcover]: 403
Memorable Quote: “How can my ankles and arms be obscene?”
Favorite Characters: Pippa and her knight, Reginald
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.
I didn’t expect to like this book. It started very slow for me, with several attempts at starting it, setting it aside, and then starting over once again. Finally, I convinced myself to read it, and once I was about a third of the way through, I began to like it, though there were a few things that hindered my enjoyment.
Gemma wants to make friends. In that respect, she’s exactly like any other teen girl. But she complains about how Ann immediately abandons her whenever it looks like it will make her more popular. A few chapters later she’s willing to do anything to keep the friends she’s managed to make, despite not actually wanting to participate. She’s a hypocrite, but then again, many people are. This irked me, and made me dislike her, because combined with her selfish attitude, she seemed exactly like the people she did not like.
I did think the supporting characters were wonderfully defined, and raised the plot immensely. Kartik was delightfully mysterious, though sometimes it seemed forced, and Pippa was the group’s romantic, though air-headed member. Even the teachers, so often neglected in young adult novels, had personalities and lives of their own.
While it isn’t one of the best books I’ve read, the plot of A Great and Terrible Beauty was unique and gripping. I kept wanting to see what would happen next-if the danger level would rise-but perhaps the great event I’ve been looking forward to happening will occur in the next book. I’ll definitely have to get that, and read more of Gemma’s journey of discovering herself.
I give A Great and Terrible Beauty 4/5 stars. Recommended for those who like historical fiction with fantasy thrown in.