A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

13 01 2012
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.

I’ve been getting more into historical fiction lately. Not to say that I’m some kind of all-knowing fiction guru or anything like that, but I think I’ve started to understand and like the genre better. A Great and Terrible Beauty came very highly recommended. So I did what I do best — I went to the library and checked out the entire trilogy.

While I had my issues, this book was a very good historical fiction story.
The story revolves around sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle. She lives in India with her family. One day while her mother and Genna walk, a strange figure appears in the streets, murdering her mother and causing Gemma to flee. After her mother’s death, Gemma’s family sends her to the Spence School for young ladies. She makes a few friendships with Ann, Pippa, and Felicity. She soon discovers that she has the power to see into the realms, the same realms that her mother traveled into. She and her friends begin to explore the realms and learn about the two organizations controlling them — the Order and the Rakshana.
I’ll start first with the characters. Gemma starts out acting like a brat, essentially. She begs to go to London, talks back to everyone she meets, and hates her mother. While these are normal teenage behaviors — and behaviors I’ve done myself — it makes her kind of annoying and less endearing in the beginning. I thought that her change when she moved to the school was almost too suddden. She hated her mother, and then when she arrived at Spence Gemma suddenly started feeling bad for her mother and missed her. I understand that Gemma loved her mother, but it seemed like she could have had a bigger emotional change and realized how she felt for her mother maybe later in the novel. The change was sudden, almost instantly in the first few chapters after the mother dies. Still, she was a strong character — a feisty, smart girl that was willing to defy her society’s comformity.
The three friends — Pippa, Ann, and Felicity — I will group together. Plenty of other reviews have mentioned the fact that the girls’ friendship is kind of flimsy and their entire relationship is essentially built on the fact that they know each other’s secrets. This is, however, a pretty common teenage friendship. That’s not to say that all teenage friendships are flimsy and driven by secrets. Bray just as easily could have made the girls have an extremely strong friendship. But she chose another path and that path worked well for the story. It was an interesting look at the nuances of teenage friendship. Bray could have fallen into the pitfall of having all the “best friends” be so similar they seemed like copies of each other. But she cleverly removed that pitfall by giving them all distinct personalities. The only qualm I really had was what happened to Pippa at the end. That was predictable and I assume that she will be returning, as she is mentioned in the jacket copy of the third book (nice, publishers). Otherwise interesting.
Kartik…I’m not quite sure how I feel about him. He was a nice love interest and an improvement over many love interests today. Still, I felt kind of distanced from him and wasn’t sure about his relationship with Gemma. I’m sure the relationship is explored more throughout the trilogy, but the end result left me feeling a bit confused. Still, he was a nice guy and gave Bray an interesting perspective on the Rakshana.
As for the plot, I’ve seen the use of realms before. Bray made the plot very original and interesting, and her world building was superb. The story was very unpredictable and fascinating. I left feeling a bit uncertain about the Rakshana and the Order, however. Not many questions were answered on the two groups. I understand that the ideas are developed in the sequels, but a bit of information beyond the basics revealing more about the group would have been interesting.
A very interesting historical fiction. If you like historical fiction this is a great read. Very interesting book and recommended.
Three stars — I really enjoyed it with some reservations.
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