A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Series: Gemma Doyle #1
First published in December 2003
Tags: Young Adult, Historial Fiction, Fantasy
Buy: Amazon | Book Depository | B&N
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.
I’d heard a lot of good things about this, but it didn’t quite reach me even though it was good.
So this is a young adult series from before YA was cool, i.e. before Twilight. Nice. It’s set in the Victorian era (although it’s probably not the most historically accurate book ever) in an all girl’s school. The atmosphere is kind of gothic, which I enjoyed.
We meet Gemma, who grew up in India but after her mother’s death (which she foresaw in a mysterious vision) is sent to England to go to school. There she meets three girls; Felicity, Pippa, and the outcast Anne, and together they stumble into a world of magic and powers.
What I liked the most about this book was its characters, Felicity in particular, and also the dialogue, which was fun and believable. There’s one scene where they get drunk on stolen alcohol in a cave that I really enjoyed reading. It was very “unladylike” and “improper”, contrasting the stiffness of the Victorian era and how they have to behave while in school.
And I liked how it kind of started out like a Victorian Mean Girls situation, but that the girls developed a friendship throughout the book. Poor Anne still drew the short end of the stick, as she’s still picked on a little, but it got better for her.
The book also gets bonus points for having very little romance, though I’m sure there will be more later in the series. Gemma lusts after a boy, but there’s not really a romance subplot nor instalove. Instead it kind of explores sexual attraction and feelings and that, in a Victorian setting from a repressed teenage girl’s point of view, was very interesting to me. That’s the Libba Bray I recognize from Beauty Queens.
Overall the book is well written and the characters did it for me, but I found the storyline itself to be somewhat uninteresting and sometimes hard to follow. Maybe it’s just the subject matter that doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve never been very into stories about witches or fairies, or whatever this is. And maybe I found it confusing at times because I skimmed a little bit here and there and maybe I missed something. Who knows.
I’d want to continue this series because I’m very interested in Felicity, but I’m not sure if I’ll bother because I’m not very into the plot. It’s a maybe for now.