Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Gothic Novel
Stand alone or series: First book of the Gemma Doyle trilogy.
Summary: (From amazon.com)
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.
Why did I read the book: I picked up the book on impulse, based on the lovely cover, and catching title. To my delight, after buying this one I discovered that it has quite a following and has received numerous positive reviews across the board.
The year is 1895, in Bombay, India. Sixteen year old Gemma Doyle is shopping with her mother, and being a typical teen–complaining. Gemma longs to go to London, to be a part of high society and to leave her perceived drudgery of India behind. Gemma’s mother tries to explain that high society isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but Gemma isn’t having any of it (in true typical teen fashion, Gemma thinks her mother is out to ruin her life and holding her back from a glamorous life of parties, dancing and romance). They are confronted on the street by two strange men, one older one younger, and the older man relays a cryptic message to Gemma’s mother:
“Circe is near.”
Gemma’s mother reacts strongly. Panicked, worried, she tells Gemma she must return home immediately without further explanation–and Gemma, angry, runs off in the marketplace. And then, Gemma’s life changes forever. Lost in the crowd, Gemma feels a strange sensation, tingling through her body. Overcome with panic and fear, Gemma has a vision where she sees her mother stalked by a man with a dagger, and then a terrible shadow shimmers to life. Gemma’s mother grabs the dagger, whispers her daughter’s name, and plunges the knife into her heart before she can be devoured by the shadow.
Gemma is devastated. Somehow, what she has seen in her vision has truly transpired, and her mother is dead. Her family tries to cover up her death by saying she died of cholera (rather than admit to the horror of a supposed ‘affair’ or suicide), and Gemma’s father becomes increasingly dependent on laudnam to get through the day. Gemma is finally sent to London society, just as she’s always wanted…a tainted, sort of bittersweet twist in her young life. It becomes apparent that impetuous Gemma is not quite ready for high society, and so her Grandmother ships her off to finishing school–the same school that Gemma’s mother attended many years before.
Once she arrives, it becomes clear to Gemma that life in England isn’t exactly how she envisioned it. The girls in her finishing school are manipulatively brilliant, beautiful, and awkward–and through a shared secret, Gemma becomes “friends” with the select clique.
A Great and Terrible Beauty is kind of like what you would get if you took A Little Princess, Dead Poets Society, and The Craft in a room and had them try to procreate. And the end result is incredibly endearing.
There are moments of true beauty in this book–Ms. Bray writes with a poetic, beautiful flourish. I LOVE that this book deals with “mommy issues”, for once! Many, many romance novels, science fiction stories, fantasy epics deal with young boys or young girls struggling with their parents, but almost always this is focused on a father figure. This book is a wonderful insight to young girls and their (ever difficult and conflicted) relationships with their mothers.
Similarly, the focus of the story, on “friendship” between adolescent girls and the intimate hierarchy of social cliques, is absolutely wonderful. Girls are, for lack of a better word, MEAN. The nature of the relationship between Gemma and her three friends reverberates truth–it’s like high school, but in a Gothic Victorian setting.
The supernatural element to the book is very strong as well. Seriously, imagine if The Dead Poets Society had a mystical glamour thing like the chicks in The Craft did. The detailed “ghost” supernatural story (complete with Gypsies, soul stealing, sacrifices, and dark magic) is awesome. While the plot feels somewhat disjointed at times, jumping from theme to theme (whether it be friendship, female empowerment, or the epic fight between good and evil), Ms. Bray’s beautiful and vivid style make this a book worth savoring. I cannot wait to read Rebel Angels!
Notable Quotes/Parts: This book begins with the poem “The Lady of Shalott” by Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Recently Ana read and reviewed Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran that featured this poem. During Gemma’s education, she has a young strong minded female teacher who asks her students about the meaning of the poem, and why the Lady left her tower, even though she “knew” she would die.
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot;
Or when the Moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.
And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance–
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camleot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
The teacher, Miss Moore, asks her students what happens to the Lady of Shalott–and why. The girls answer that the Lady dies, because she is cursed, or because she cannot live without her love and thus dies romantically for love. Miss Moore responds with her own answer (very bold, and completely out of her time but who cares because it’s wonderful): “I think that the lady dies not because she leaves the tower for the outside world, but because she lets herself float through that world, pulled by the current after a dream.”
Additional Thoughts: It was almost painful to read about the cliquishness of these girls at Spence School–the tricks they would play on each other, the power ploys and almost backstabbing cruelty. But…that’s all part of growing up, right? Harsh as it may be, I loved the unflinching realism that Ms. Bray put into the relationships between her protagonist Gemma and her (conditional) friends.
Verdict: I really enjoyed this book. There were some moments of lagging action, but overall this is a truly beautiful (and terrible in its beauty) book. I cannot wait to dig into books 2 and 3!
Rating: 7 Very Good
Reading Next: Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin