A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

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.

Gemma, 16, 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. [taken from back cover of book]

Firstly, I want to say that I absolutely loved Ms. Bray’s descriptions of colonial India, Victorian England and The Realms - such very different places but so vividly detailed. Oh and Spence... {sighs} I love Victorian finishing schools. I liked Gemma - I thought Ms. Bray did a great job depicting her as a normal teen with all the emotional turmoil, teen angst, pettiness, selfishness, etc., that you would see in any teen. I liked that she wasn't perfect - that she had her flaws and in the end that was what won me over. My only complaint was that (on certain occasions) the way she talked and expressed herself was not very true to that of a Victorian young lady - I found it somewhat modern.

I liked the friendship that the girls sparked - I thought they were all so different (some likeable, some not so much) but in the end, they made it work. I also enjoyed how Kartik was woven into the story - especially in those dream sequences (wink wink). I wasn’t sure if to like him or not (somewhat the way Gemma feels about him) but I think there’s still hope for him yet. I really had to appreciate that Ms. Bray managed to tell an entertaining story, while trying to instill ideas of feminine power.

My only issue with this book is that they paint suicide in such an easy light. I really don’t want to spoil or give anything away, so I won’t be able to discuss this in as much detail as I’d like, but there is more than one suicide and the characters just seem “okay” with this.

All in all, I still thought that the story flowed really well and had plenty of twists and turns to keep me guessing. There were plenty of loose ends - but alas, there are two more books in this trilogy which I’m sure will remedy that. In the end, I found A Great and Terrible Beauty entertaining and definitely a page-turner. I would definitely recommend to lovers of historical fiction with a (slightly creepy) magical twist.


Tales of Whimsy said...

It has been so long since I read this that I truly don't remember too much. I do remember loving the cover and the way the market place seemed to come alive in her descriptions. Great review! Impressed (as always)! :)

Jess. said...

It was a while ago when I read this, but I remember thinking the same thing about the suicide thing. I'll have to re-read it and if you want to chat about it, let me know!

Jessica said...

I agree about the dialogue. While reading this book, I would often forget the time period this book was trying to take place in. I still haven't read the third book, yet.
Great review!

Veens said...

I love what i hear about this one! This is a perfect blend of all the stuff i like reading about!
Great review!

Lenore Appelhans said...

I bought this almost exactly one year ago before meeting the author, but I still haven't read more than the first chapter. I really need to!

Anonymous said...

Your review makes this book sound like a very interesting read. I've seen Libba Bray's name around several blogs and am going to be putting her on my (already very long) wish list.

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