Diana Reviews: Libba Bray's - "A Great And Terrible Beauty"

It’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?

A Great and Terrible Beauty is a Gothic/Victorian novel set in the 19th century. It follows the tale of a sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle whose mother has just died under suspicious circumstances, circumstances which Gemma sees in a vision. She is then sent to a boarding school in London where she rooms with Ann, a plain girl who is only there due to a scholarship. Gemma and Ann, along with two other girls, Felicity and Pippa, travel to the realms and unravel their magic.

The book has quite a promising start, but as soon as Gemma goes to Spence, the action comes to a halt, which is quite a shame. For a while, all you read about is how the most powerful girls of Spence mock poor Ann and how they lure Gemma into a prank. You’re left wondering, for quite some time, why Gemma sees visions and when you find out why, it’s almost as side-thought. A great majority of the book is the girls’ exploring and the action only picks up towards the end. But when it does, the book ends, leaving you wanting to find out more in a sequel.

The biggest issue I found in A Great And Terrible Beauty were the characters. Gemma is mostly nice and willful, but I felt like she was the only character who had something inside her head. Ann is an ugly, chubby girl and all she wants is to be pretty. Pippa is the opposite – beautiful – but as shallow as they come. Pippa’s whole world revolves around finding true love and that’s it. And then there’s Felicity, the Admiral’s daughter, who thinks she’s the queen of the world but deep down all she wants is her father’s approval.

The friendship between Gemma and the other three girls was one-sided. All through the book, Ann, Felicity and Pippa were clearly using Gemma for her magic and they stupidly turn on her the first chance they get. It angered me no end that these girls, who say over and over again that they are the dearest of friends, would betray each other every chance they get. This friendship is supposed to be one of the main aspects of the book and it is a let-down because the girls are all so jaded.

As for romance… there is some in the book and it’s well done, but it’s not something central – so, if you’re going in expecting a riveting love story, then you should pick a different book.

There are very good things about A Great And Terrible Beauty, though. The book is terrifically well-written. The prose is fluid and the descriptions are quite nice. It’s also very accurate historically, from clothes to customs to the way people talk. For instance, women are only supposed to learn what they need to please a husband, a thought that was quite common in the 19th century, and some of the girls (not all) fight against this stereotype. It’s not a feminist book, not by a long shot, but it’s not chauvinistic either. It has a balance about it, and that balance fits.

The author’s take on the magical world is different, but it’s almost not exploited enough. Hopefully, Libba Bray will make use of the great magical world she’s created in the second book. To finish it up, the plot twist towards the end makes you want to read more. I found the book fun and the end was good enough for me to want to read the sequels.

This is an entertaining novel and if you’re into historic young-adult novels with a twist for the magical, then this book is for you. Even if you’re not, it’s intriguing enough for you to give it a shot.

Paperback: 416 pages

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children’s;

Language English

ISBN-10: 0689875355

ISBN-13: 978-0689875359

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