Book: “A Great and Terrible Beauty” by Libba Bray
Publication Info: Simon and Schuster, December 2013
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: 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.
Review: You may be wondering…a book about snarky popular girls? Why is Serena reviewing this and not Kate, the keeper of snarky girls’ clubs? Well, after I started this book, I found out that Kate did in fact read this book before we started this blog, and I’m now just playing catch up. But, in many ways, this book also sounded like something that would be up my alley. I love historical books, and especially those that fall into the very specific “fantasy of manners” category that often mixes Regency/Victorian fiction with magical worlds and systems. So, while the snarky girls did get on my nerves at points, these other elements that are more typical of my usual reading wares were definitely working in its favor.
The story starts out with us meeting Gemma, a spoiled and rather bratty teenage girl living in India with her parents and dreaming of London. After tragedy strikes and her mother dies in the midst of some strange dark magic, Gemma finds her “dreams” coming true, but not in the ways she would expect. Yes, she’s now in England. But being the new girl isn’t all that she thought it would be, and not only is she set apart by this status, but she’s hiding a dark secret of her burgeoning magical abilities. All too quickly, things begin to spiral out of control and now Gemma needs to not only manage learning her own powers, but finding a way to keep her new friends safe in the process.
While I found myself wanting to smack each of these girls up side the head at one point or another, I loved the clear-eyed look at the harsh realities that were forced upon Victorian young ladies. Each girl has her own struggles to overcome. The beauty who is being essentially sold to the highest bidder in a marriage of convenience. The powerful, popular girl whose charm and magnetic personality allows her to reign over the school but whose control over her self and her decisions doesn’t translate to a life where she has been abandoned by her mother and ignored by her father. The orphan, attending school on a scholarship and whose dreams of beauty and singing are being squashed beneath the realities of an almost unavoidable future as a governess. And Gemma, herself, who is being told again and again by the men around her to keep her head down, be a good girl, and definitely don’t learn anything more about her own magical abilities.
Each of these girls was distinct, and each responded differently to the sudden power and freedom they discover in Gemma’s abilities and the mystical Order, a group of magical women that existed for centuries before coming to a mysterious and tragic end a few decades ago. I loved the slow reveal of the Order and the truth behind the girls who had been at the center of its downfall. There were plenty of surprises, and some that, while I was able to guess the result, were just as delicious in the telling.
My few qualms with the story are purely personal preference. There’s a reason why Kate is the queen of the snarky girls groups and I’m not. At various points in the story, but especially towards the last third, I would get increasingly frustrated with the nonsense of these girls. While the tenuous balance of their friendships read as true of teenage girls, even if I found it annoying at times, it was the complete lack of thought that went into some of their actions towards the end that really got to me. The author did a good job of building up the desperation, frustration, and fear of the future that drove these actions, but I still had a hard time with the complete idiocy that made up some of these decisions, given the information they had about past events. However, this last third was saved by some good action sequences, and a realistic bout of consequences for everything that occurred.
My last point will be that there was the seemingly required romance sub plot in this story. And when I say sub plot, I mean sub sub plot. It was barely there to the point that whenever it was referenced, it almost felt like it was coming out of the blue. The boy in question was rarely involved in the action of the story, would be absent for large chunks of time, and really had no relationship building with Gemma, leaving any feelings she had for him based purely on physical appearance. Luckily, the relationship doesn’t develop much, which felt on par with the above mentioned limitations, but I was left wondering whether it needed to be included at all. I’m guessing that more will come of this in the next few books, which may, in retrospect, make this element read better a second go-around.
All in all, I very much enjoyed this book. I loved the setting of a Victorian boarding school, with the strict boundaries set before these girls as the force upon which the freedoms and power of the magical elements worked against. While I can only hope that in future books the girls wisen up a bit, and maybe snap at each other a bit less, I’m definitely interested enough to continue with the series.
Rating 8: While my tolerance for bratty girls may be rather low, I still loved the magic and the Victorian setting.
“A Great and Terrible Beauty” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Victorian Historical Fiction Set In Britain” and “Fantasy of Manners.”
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