(Cover picture courtesy of The Young Folks.)
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.
Just like the title may suggest to you, there are some great things in this book and some terrible things. Let’s start with the great ones, shall we?
I loved the Victorian feel of this novel. Libba Bray’s talent here is that she never loses the dark Victorian atmosphere while still exploring things like women’s issues and teenage love. Some of the things the main characters learn in A Great and Terrible Beauty can certainly apply to teens today, so I think this book is still very easy to relate to. At the same time, there’s still that exotic feel that comes with a completely different time period.
Another good thing was the main character, Gemma. Gemma is not your typical kick-butt girl empowerment type of character. She’s a little bit shy, impulsive and struggles to fight against a society where women aren’t supposed to have their own opinions. Does that mean she’s constantly fighting with her teachers at Spence over women’s issues and boldly doing things like wearing pants? Of course not. This goes back to the whole authentic Victorian feel of the novel: Gemma rebels in a realistic way, not necessarily in a modern way that YA readers have come to expect.
Now for the terrible: Gemma’s friends. I know that they certainly had their flaws, but they were still not given much depth. Pippa only acquired some depth in the end, but Felicity was just your typical It-Girl through-and-through. Yes, teenagers do stupid things, but the idiotic thing they do at the end of the novel at the behest of a malevolent spirit just made me face-palm. I mean, really? Hardly any girl would do that today, let alone girls raised to believe that showing your ankles and wrists meant you were a loose woman.
As for the mysterious Order I was generally happy about what information Libba Bray chose to reveal as the book went along. She reveals enough for us to understand what the heck is going on, but not so much that I could end the trilogy here. For now I’m going to reserve judgment on the other realms and the magic but I’ll say that I’m satisfied with the explanations thus far.
Overall, A Great and Terrible Beauty was a pretty good novel. Was it the best I’ve ever read? No, I wouldn’t put it up there on my top 10 or even 20 list. But it was a mostly enjoyable read and I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.
I give this book 3.5/5 stars.