A Great and Terrible Beauty
by Libba Bray
Original Publication Date: December 9, 2003
Length: 403 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Obtained Via: Bought
#1 in Gemma Doyle
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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.
Shall I tell you a story? A new and terrible one? A ghost story? Are you ready? Shall I begin? Once upon a time there were four girls. One was pretty. One was clever. One charming, and one…one was mysterious. But they were all damaged, you see. Something not right about the lot of them. Bad blood. Big dreams. Oh, I left that part out. Sorry, that should have come before. They were all dreamers, these girls.
I finally read A Great and Terrible Beauty! It’s only been on my bookshelf for, oh, three years? It was the first book by Libba Bray I ever bought, yet when I went to get a new book my eyes kept passing it over. I read other books by Libba Bray during that time(The Diviners and Beauty Queens). Having read those two books, especially The Diviners, I thought had a pretty strong idea of what kind of story A Great and Terrible Beauty was. Let’s just say I was slightly off.
I do think having read other books by Bray lessened my enjoyment slightly. A Great and Terrible Beauty was Libba Bray’s debut, and while it was good, it was not nearly as strong as the other books I’ve read. The writing didn’t feel quite as tight, and the beginning especially was slow. I had to trudge through the first 100 pages(it took me a month of reading, off and on.)
When the story finally got going, however, I did enjoy it. The inclusion of magic was great, even if I expected it to play a larger part than it did. I loved Gemma’s interactions with the other girls at the boarding school, even if it took me half the book to tell Felicity and Pippa apart. The undercurrent of these four girls using magic to subvert their place in society and gain their own independence was probably my favorite part. The time setting of A Great and Terrible Beauty might not have allowed girls to have their own agendas, but Bray is never content to use that as an excuse for passive characters.
For once, my favorite part of a book was the mystery. Gemma finds a diary that documents two girls from a previous generation exploring the “realms”(a magic realm that Gemma and her friends manage to go to in order to escape reality). There’s the mystery of what happened to those two girls and who they were. There were twists in this book that I didn’t see coming, which is fairly rare for me, and it was the main reason I kept turning the pages.
I had hoped that A Great and Terrible Beauty would become a new favorite, and while it wasn’t that, it was still very enjoyable past the slow beginning. I didn’t have a strong connection to most of the characters other than Gemma, but I did enjoy the mystery and the setting. 4/5 cupcakes.