A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fan...

BOOK REVIEW: A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY BY LIBBA BRAY

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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.




To have a book hailed as "a Victorian boarding school story and a Gothic mansion mystery", it's hard not to dive right in, and still harder not to be excited about the book's potential as a whole. Expectation management goes right out the window in instances like these - and expectation management is something that would do it a world of good in the long run.

Because A Great And Terrible Beauty is incredibly clever. And A Great And Terrible Beauty is incredibly slow.


If there's one thing to be said for Libba Bray, it is that she tackles the Victorian setting of this story in a beautiful, witty, educational way, with a layered and nuanced portrayal of the treatment of women at this era. Gemma Doyle starts the story off by being shipped to an all-girl boarding school with a motto of "Grace, charm and beauty". Unlike boarding schools today, an all-girl school in Victorian England had one purpose, and one purpose alone: to turn girls into desirable wives and auction them off to the highest bidder. A discussion this mindset sparks all throughout the rest of the book is fantastic, and it is the very best reflection this book has to offer. Having the "distance" from that time period and a world of hindsight to support her, Libba Bray tackles the subjects of girls' sexual explorations of that time, of their opinions, their unspoken conflicts and the desperation that comes with a complete lack of control over one's own life. From a begrudging acceptance of their situations, the girls come to a gradual realization of their own potentials and all they could accomplish in and of themselves - and for this celebration and this critique of the Victorian era, Libba Bray deserves all the praise in the world.

"I think I'm beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and teachers and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It's not that they want to protect us; it's that they fear us."

The "dark, otherworldly fantasy" comes into the mix later - perhaps a bit later than it should have done. When Gemma and her friends discover a world beyond their own - one where all wishes come true, and no rules seem to apply - it poses an opportunity for each of them to regain that lost control over their fates.

"We're playing their predetermined little game. But what if we had a place where we played by no one's rules but our own?"

But amid the beautiful writing, amid the important social commentary, there are also issues of pacing and of the overall plot development throughout large portions of this series debut. For many, many pages of this story, nothing of great consequence seems to happen - nothing that managed to hold my interest, at any rate. As a reader who actually likes a slow build-up, and a lot of time devoted to atmospheric prose and gradual worldbuilding, I should have liked A Great And Terrible Beauty despite the time it took to get the plot underway. But I found myself frequently putting it down in favor of just about anything else.

This, perhaps, is due to character relatability, which for me was thin on the ground. All of the girls who Gemma befriends at Spence academy were extremes in one way or another. In my experience, whenever a member of the group can be summed up in one word and no more ("the beautiful one", "the charming one", "the clever one"), there's only so much of them one can relate to. Which is why Gemma Doyle, the complex protagonist, should have been the one to whom we should have been able to relate. But I personally found Gemma to be the one whose actions made the least sense, and whose development was the least impressive. In a way, Gemma felt so far removed from the world to me. This is in part because she never took anyone's advice, even when it was clearly to her benefit, and in part because she was perpetually unhappy about her life, even before it went downhill.

"My mother had wanted me to stay in India. I had wanted to come to London, and now that I'm here, I couldn't be more miserable."

The same holds true for Katrik, whose entire presence in the book could have been taken out without affecting the plot in any way, shape or form. As one of the good advice-givers, I felt like he should have been someone I was supposed to understand and approve of. Half the time, however, Katrik had no idea what was going on, and the other half he was passing cryptic messages which he refused to explain and empty threats which he never acted on. His lack of substance made him seem wholly irrelevant as far as the story as a whole. He is obviously being set up as a love interest for future books, and perhaps in future books his presence will be by far more relevant to the plot. Which brings me to my main impression regarding this book:

A Great And Terrible Beauty isn't so much Book 1 as it is Act I of a story. As far as the primary plot and the overall story structure, it doesn't read like a cohesive, complete arc. The fact that I was repeatedly assured that "the last 100 pages are really interesting, you just have to get that far" says as much. The last 100 pages were interesting. The last 100 pages were where most of the actual relevant plot happened. I just wish it would have come a lot sooner than it had.






Really, though. Had A Great And Terrible Beauty been as interesting as its final portion, this would have been a 5-star read. And once the plot is unraveling and some action is to be had, the previously slow build-up is well worth it. But my opinion is my opinion, and I'm very much interested in hearing yours. Leave us a comment below and let us know how you enjoyed the book (or if you intend to pick it up), or find us on social media below.




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