A Great and Terrible Beauty – Libba Bray

a great and terrible beauty


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.

My Thoughts

I remember reading this trilogy well over 10 years ago in high school, but I remember very little of it. Now, as an adult, I thought I’d give it another go. I was not disappointed.

Gemma is your average teenage girl. She longs to find a place to belong, to fit in, to be a part of something. Oh, she’s a part of something alright – but this something is far bigger, and far more dangerous than she could have ever imagined. Sometimes her emotions get the better of her – and that’s okay. This happens to everyone – teenagers and adults alike. She’s especially anxious at being thrust into an unfamiliar situation, with slightly unfamiliar expectations being thrust upon her.

Spence Academy really is just a Victorian reflection of any other high school – you have the cliques and the popular crowd, the bullied and the demeaned. However, much of that is exacerbated by the fact that many of these girls come from money; prestigious families looking to better their names. These girls are nothing more than a mirror with which to reflect back forced indoctrination befitting families of a certain status.

As Gemma says herself, the girls of Spence are “hollow vessels of girls to be rinsed of our own ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with the cool, tepid water of gracious compliance.” I realize this is a common enough sentiment of the treatment of women in Victorian England, but a lot of those sentiments still ring true today – women are expected to be certain ways, and if they’re not, they’re told to expect less than humane treatment from men around them. Pardon my language, but it’s fucking bullshit. Gemma sees this loud and clear and is quite intent to rebel. The other three in the clique see and experience this in varying degrees – choosing to rebel in their own ways, as well, though maybe not as brazenly as Gemma. (Well, brazen for Victorian days, I suppose.)

There is also a mystery that Gemma is set on solving, and boy howdy did she get the shock of a lifetime as she solves it. Though a tough pill to swallow, Gemma marches on and tries to do what she thinks is best. This world of realms that she’s discovered – this magic that is live within her – is tricky, difficult, and dangerous. She’s intent on mastering it, despite the Rakshana – the guardians – being dead set against this.

As Kartik keeps a watch over her in order to keep Gemma’s visions from getting stronger, she’s drawn to him just as much as she rebels against him. This tiny bit rebellious will-they-won’t-they romance is very well balanced, as it doesn’t take over the entire plot. I quite like that. Their acquaintance is dark and steamy, and just the right amount to push forward, without being overwhelming. Gemma’s main objective is still learning about the magic, and finding out what happened to her mother.

Gemma is trying desperately to learn as much as she can, from as many sources as she can, to better understand her role in this entire endeavor – and do avoid the wrath of Circe at all costs. Her adventures have just begun as she must balance being an exemplary lady of Spence, as well as one of the new Order. Hopefully, this is a balancing act that doesn’t cost her any more than it already has.


~ by Aubrey Smith on July 5, 2017.

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