Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Published: December 9, 2003
403 pages
4 Gold Stars

(summary from Goodreads)

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. 

Blending corsets, boarding school, and magic gave this book a uniqueness that I've never read before. Gemma Doyle is one of a kind. Living in India with her parents, all she wants is to be back in England and the way she thinks she'll get there is by constantly bringing it up to her mom. But after a terrible and sudden accident, she is shipped back to England with a dead mother and thrust into a boarding school to make her a proper lady. But Gemma is everything but proper. She is more concerned with being happy and sticking up for her friends, which is what gets her involved with Felicity and Pippa in the first place and leads to them having secret meetings in a cave at night and fooling around with magic. Before she knows it, Gemma learns that she can cross over in the realms, a secret place that only certain girls can find. While it is all fun and games at first, her dead mother warns her of the power of the realms and a mysterious diary that she's found leads her to believe there is more than meets the eye. Add in the secretive man, Kartik, who has followed her from India to warn her, and you've got the makings of a dramatic, historical, magical romp.

Period pieces can be hard for me to get into. The language is always different and there can be too much description that leads away from the plot. Bray knows how to write historical fiction. There was  just enough description to tell me where the book was taking place and what sort of clothes the girls were wearing, but she did not ramble about their outfits for paragraphs on end. The writing was easy to follow and captivated me quickly, letting me know that even though it was going to be historical, that was not the main focus of the novel. The magical element brings a whole other air to the story, making it stand out from most other books. The Order, a secret organization that we still know little about, promises to give Gemma some things to worry about in the future of this series.

The minor characters played such pivotal points to this story that it's hard to call them minor. Felicity is one of a kind, a lovely girl who knows how to get what she wants. Pippa just wants to marry a man she can love, not the older man her parents want her to be with. And Ann, Gemma's orphan roommate who is destined to be a handmaiden, shows her strength when alone with the other girls and she may prove to be more powerful than any of them could imagine. Each girl grows drastically throughout the book. When they get these powers, we see their true character, and I'm curious to see how each one will develop throughout the rest of the series. Kartik is as mysterious at the end as he was at the beginning and I know it'll be fun to get to know him further.

This is an series but I think it's as important today as it was when it came out. It's as important now as it would have been in the 1800s. Women are powerful, in more ways than one, and it's the way we use that power that makes us who we are meant to be. I'm excited to pick up Rebel Angels.

“I run after her, not really giving chase. I’m running because I can, because I must. Because I want to see how far I can go before I have to stop.” 

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