Book/Author: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Publisher/Year: December 9th 2003 by Simon and Schuster
Genre: Fantasy, YA, Historical Fiction
Series: Gemma Doyle (Book 1 of 3)
“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.” (Goodreads)
This is a reread, I first read it when I was around the age of the protagonist, Gemma. The first time I read A Great and Terrible Beauty I LOVED it; I devoured it and the other two books in the series. I went into this reread understanding that I am not a teenager anymore and that my reading tastes have likely changed. That being said, I still enjoyed it and would still recommend it!
This book takes place in a Victorian boarding school for young girls that are taught how to be “proper” ladies – so all the sexism and stereotypes that you’d expect to find: how to be a good cook, wife, dance partner, beauty tip, etiquette, politeness, ect. But our protagonist is a leading lady who doesn’t take so kindly to these gender norms. She is a young spitfire who pushes the envelope, eventually bringing some of her friends along with her on her shenanigans. There is everything scandalous from a young teen’s perspective: sneaking out, skinny dipping, curiosity about boys and underage drinking – this is why I think I loved this book when I was younger, they were rebels and broke all the rules & gender norms. Now in my 20s, I still loved their defiance and it made me giddy.
Side rant for one second: I am not sure how I feel about Kartik as a character, he seems a bit grabby/ aggressive; he seems to grab Gemma’s wrists a lot to direct her places or get her attention, and I am like “stop grabbing her and use your words!”, but I think I may be extrapolating it in my mind as Kartik being intentionally demeaning and hurtful, but it may not be meant to be taken that way whatsoever.
Another thing I like about this book is the character development. We have a major character die in the beginning but this does not stop the author from creating a strong relationship between Gemma and this character. In addition, Gemma’s classmates that you first think of as catty bullies, you get to understand why they behave that way and eventually start to accept these characters as flawed friends.
This book is hard to categorize; it is definitely teen/young adult (YA) but it has elements of historical fiction, fantasy, and romance. For a teen read, this is not your normal YA read. There is a bit of a romance, but it is not the focal point; the main focus is on the relationships Gemma has with her mother and her new school friends. Plus, I’m a sucker for anything with visions or dreams.
I still highly recommend this book and I cannot wait to read the other two. Throw together a bunch of flawed characters, a boarding school, a clumsy & opinionated leading lady, Victorian era elements, magic, and dreams & visions and you have a recipe for the perfect summer read.
“May I suggest that you all read? And often. Believe me, it’s nice to have something to talk about other than the weather and the Queen’s health. Your mind is not a cage. It’s a garden. And it requires cultivating.”
“There are no safe choices. Only other choices.”
“I changed the world; the world changed me. Everything you do comes back to you. When you affect a situation, you are also affected.”