Author: Libba Bray
Genre: Young Adult // Magic // Historical // Paranormal
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: December 9, 2003
Source: Purchased (Audible)
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 (goodreads).
A Great and Terrible Beauty was full of all the things I want more of in YA: complicated relationships, an engaging mystery, and even bits of sexuality!
Plot: Gemma Doyle is at the age where she wants nothing more than to get away from her controlling mother. They used to get along famously, but now it seems that they can never see eye to eye. As a young woman approaching 16, she wants to leave the hot climate of India and get a proper English education to prepare her for society. That is, until her mother is brutally murdered before her eyes. The result of this tragic death is that she gets what she wants and is ushered to London to attend Spence boarding school. As all good mysteries go, she learns that the school has a hidden secret that affects her more personally that she would like.
I'm slowly learning that Libba Bray simply cannot do cookie cutter. A Great and Terrible Beauty is a unique tale that expertly weaves beguiling characters and a spooky Victorian setting. The pacing of A Great and Terrible Beauty is much like The Diviners. It is slow, but I was never bored. Libba Bray's primary focus is her characters which is always a selling point for me as a reader.
The overall mystery is something that Gemma pieces together little by little until we have our grand "a-ha" moment. It was never obvious, but there is a clear trail of bread crumbs that Libba Bray leaves for both the reader and Gemma to discover on their own.
Characters: From the beginning, Gemma Doyle proves herself to be your typical teenager. She's a downright brat and has a strained relationship with her mother. It isn't until she's forced onto the shores of London that she grows. She even has a moment where she questions what it's like to be a woman and timidly explores the ideas of sex and natural attraction. I appreciated her strong will and refusal to become nothing more than a passive wife.
The other young women at Spence as equally intriguing, as their friendship with Gemma is not 100% "I-like-you,-you-like-me-let's-be-friends." They each have weaknesses that Bray has no qualms with highlighting.
World Building: Libba Bray is the queen of dark and beautiful things. Her portrayal of Bombay, India brought to mind a bustling shopping center and humidity. On the other hand, London was described as gray and almost stifling. I felt transported to this Victorian world that felt both organic fantastical.
Audiobook Performance: At first I was worried about Ms. Josephine Baker's performance. The novel starts off in India so of course, the natives have heavily-accented English. Baker tries her best to deliver her lines with a believable accent, but all I could do was cringe. Her English accents were far better, and I was soon wrapped up in Baker's performance.
Short N Sweet: A Great and Terrible Beauty is the mature YA novel that readers have been waiting for! Full of whimsy, complicated friendships, and a surprise ending, A Great and Terrible Beauty will have you itching to buy the whole trilogy!