A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray: B-

greatterribleFrom the back cover:
Gemma Doyle isn’t like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, who dance with grace, and who will lie back and think of England when it’s required of them.

No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to the Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s been followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

For it’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called the Order. It’s there that her destiny waits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

It’s 1895, and sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle has finally got her wish and has come to London. It’s not how she’d envisioned achieving this goal, however, as it occurs only after her mother, who’d been steadfastly diverting Gemma’s pleas to leave India and see London for quite some time now, kills herself under mysterious circumstances. With Gemma’s father incapacitated by grief, she is largely left in the charge of her grandmother, who promptly ships her off to Spence, a boarding school where she will be made into a proper (read: obedient) lady.

While all of this is going on, and while Gemma is being bullied by a group of influential girls at school, she’s having disturbing visions and receiving warnings to quit having them from a handsome Indian boy named Kartik. Eventually she both befriends those girls and decides to disregard Kartik’s warnings entirely. The girls learn of a powerful group of women, the Order, and decide to reenact some of their rituals, not realizing at first how very real it all is. Things get out of hand, as magical dabbling often does, and the consequences are rather grim.

I’ve got mixed feelings about A Great and Terrible Beauty. On the negative side, it takes quite a while before the story makes sense. It’s not clear, for example, whether Kartik’s warnings ought to be heeded and Gemma is a fool for disregarding them, or whether he is simply trying to keep her from developing her powers as she should. As a result, I couldn’t tell whether I ought to find Gemma willful and annoying or cheer her on, which was a problem again later when she is shown some magical runes and then promptly told she mustn’t ever use them, yadda yadda. Well, you just know she’s going to, and at least I found her rationale for finally giving in kind of sympathetic, but we’re subjected to all kinds of petulant wheedling before that point. The ending is also rather strange in that I don’t understand how Gemma doing one thing causes another to happen.

On the positive side, I like the atmosphere of the school and its grounds as well as the evocation of the time period. The book is at its most compelling when it focuses on the plight of women in this era: little is expected of them save for placid compliance—no real academics are taught at Spence, for example—and they are often used as bargaining chips in marriages not of their own choosing. Each of the four girls in the new Order is unhappy with her lot in some degree, summed up nicely in a ghost story as told by former bully, Felicity:

Once upon a time, there were four girls. One was pretty, one was smart, one charming and one… one was mysterious. But they were all damaged, you see. Something not right about the lot of them. Bad blood, big dreams… They were all dreamers, these girls. One by one, night after night, the girls came together and they sinned. Do you know what that sin was? No one? Their sin was that they believed, believed they could be different, special. They believed they could change who they were. Not damaged, unloved, cast-off things. They would be alive, adored, needed, necessary.

But it wasn’t true.

I listened to A Great and Terrible Beauty as an unabridged audiobook, and I’d be remiss if I neglected to praise the excellent narrator, Josephine Bailey. She does a truly amazing job in giving each character a distinctive voice—so much so that it’s hard to believe at times that it’s one person behind them all. Her performance is one of the most impressive I’ve ever heard and I’ve heard quite a lot.

At this point, I am unsure whether I wish to continue with the series. In its favor is the fact that I already own the other two books in the trilogy, but since I find the plot rather muddled and the protagonist quite irritating at times that’s about all it has going for it at the moment. Besides my completist nature, that is.

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  1. I read this book a while ago… when it first came out, I think. It’s interesting in that it’s a fantasy with female protaganists, but I managed to escape compulsion to read the rest of the series. Probably because they weren’t out yet and by the time they were I’d forgotten most of the plot.

    Finish the rest of the books on your immediate list first and see if you still care about finishing the series. 🙂

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