A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Release: January 1st 2003
Genre: Steampunk, Paranormal, Magic, YA
#1 in the Gemma Doyle trilogy
Sequels: Rebel Angels (#2), The Sweet Far Thing (#3)
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.
Well, well. I can't say it's an outstanding novel, but I can't say I didn't enjoy it either. I think the only reason I really liked it was because I was in the mood for a nice boarding school novel like Hex Hall again. And it did remind me a bit of Hex Hall, to be quite honest, which I'm sure further added to my enjoying this.
Anyway, I'll just dive straight in, because otherwise I'll forget everything I want to say. I'll start off with saying that this is indeed quite a ... powerful book. In the sense of, it sends out a message and it has something very memorable going on for it, which is what made me give it 3 stars in the end. I liked the conclusion that's a satisfying ending but still leaves enough loose threads to pick up in a sequel. Since I can't find the other two books anywhere right now (I'm sure they're not re-printing any more copies of these books, unfortunately), that's pretty convenient, because I obviously can't marathon through right now as a result.
Part of why this book is memorable is the diverse set of characters. In personality, they're all pretty forgettable, but they have certain qualities going for them that are hard to shake. Ann's desire to be beautiful, Pippa's want of a true love and not to be seen as property, and Felicity's problems with her parents and her need to feel powerful. The latter kind of me reminded me of Allison from Teen Wolf, which just bought her some bonus points, ending up in her being my favorite, I guess. I don't really have a favorite, though, because I didn't feel strongly for any of these. They're all shallow, naive and silly in a way, and while Gemma is not quite as bad as the others in this way, she still makes plenty of stupid decisions and whines a lot. Still, like I said, they're special.
I do have one complaint against one character though — Kartik. What's his purpose? What...? I just... I never got why he was even in the story. All he ever did was stalk Gemma incessantly (man, what was up with that?!), and mutter cryptic warnings. He was supposed to act as a love interest for her, but... where was the build-up? It came all out of nowhere, they don't really interact much at all, barely holding what actually qualifies as a conversation once, and she's having wild sex dreams of him and thinks about his skin and his lips and I just... I did not get what the point was. It all rather annoyed me, truly. I want to know what his deal is and why he warns Gemma not to use her powers and what this order (Rakshana?) is he belongs to and... everything. This dude was a huge question mark during the whole story and I thought "Well... it's gonna be explained really soon, right? Right?!" only it wasn't. Never.
Then, there's the plot that doesn't really add up until much later in the book, simply confusing and weirding me out further. Also, there's the fact that there isn't much... going on. Like, I could sum all that happens up in two sentences? Don't believe me? Gemma goes to boarding school, makes some friends. They discover some magic realm that grants them magic powers and they frolick with it. That's it, that's the whole story. It got a little tedious at times, and the same story wore itself out soon after, but well. Something kept me reading, and I honestly don't even know what. Looking back, it all seems very dull and it kind of was, and there was so much that wasn't explained until extremely late (and a couple things never, as I already pointed out), so that the whole thrill of the ride was blotted out a bit by all the question marks looming around.
Also, that climax... man, the entire novel is basically build-up for this big showdown with the evil enemy, the one who's out to get Gemma and probably murder her painfully, and in the end... it was a "fight" (more of a struggle really) that lasted all of ... 1 page. Yup. There's no major losses (one character dies because they choose to), and afterwards it's just... nothing. They cry a bit, then go on with their lives. The last 50 pages tried to be exciting and whimsical, but in the end it just burped in my face and giggled.
In conclusion, well ... if the story sounds interesting, go ahead. It does have somewhat nice characters with a somewhat nice (and semi original) storyline, so feel free to give it a go. It's surely not terrible, and I did like it in some twisted way, it's just nothing mind-blowing. Could be worth the time though, I guess.