A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
The Gemma Doyle Trilogy popped up onto my radar when the last installment in the trilogy, The Sweet Far Thing, was released in late 2007. Demand for it was ridiculously high in bookstores and libraries, and I kept seeing the various novels, their covers depicting the torsos and lower faces of corset-bound girls, on display. Curious, I put A Great and Terrible Beauty on the list, and have only now gotten around to reading it. Surprisingly, demand at libraries has not slowed for this series.
After the mysterious murder of her mother, Gemma Doyle leaves India for England in 1895. There, she is promptly placed into Spence Academy, a forbidding finishing school filled with rich girls (and a few poor ones) destined for constricting lives as wives or governesses. There, she meets three other girls–ambitious Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and scholarship girl Ann, who are all chafing under the restrictions that Victorian life is placing upon them. Gemma is chafing too, but she has a much darker secret–she had a vision of her mother’s death, and the dark forces that murdered Mrs. Doyle are slowly, but surely, surrounding Gemma at Spence…
A Great and Terrible Beauty is filled with twists and turns as Gemma attempts to learn more about her magical powers and their history. Bray is fairly deft with a plot, devoting enough time to each scene but moving at a steady clip through the events of Gemma’s first months at Spence. Her sense of suspense and foreshadowing is quite nice and subtle enough to be missed by a speedy reader. Unfortunately, the end leaves a bit to be desired, with plenty of loose ends that I’m sure are tied up quite nicely in its sequels, Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing. I can’t seem to find out if A Great and Terrible Beauty was meant to start a trilogy or was meant to be a standalone novel–the overall impression from the book itself is that it is definitely part of a series.
While most of the characters are well executed, Gemma, disappointingly, is not. She comes off as far too modern, with her constant sarcasm and railing against the place of women in Victorian society. Often, in young adult fantasy, the magical powers of the young symbolize their wish for power in a world ruled by adults and strange, oppressive customs. Bray makes a wonderful point about the repressiveness of Victorian society, especially the powerlessness of women. Gemma’s too modern dismissal of traditional femininity in her times hammers that point home too viciously, ruining the otherwise subtle message Bray had woven into her novel. It also strains the historical setting–while Gemma can certainly be a protofeminist, some of that gender socialization must have sunk in at some level. She can be quite childish and petulant–certainly traits true of teenagers, but also very annoying traits. Gemma wises up by the second half of the novel, but it’s still too late–we’ve seen her at it.
This modernity occasionally plagues the other characters, too. While I quite liked Felicity and Pippa, they are introduced as the haughty queens of Spence who play the girls off one another with cruel behavior–locking Gemma in the chapel, for instance, and accusing Ann of theft. While their friendship is hardly straightforward, it’s a bit of a jump from pulling pranks on each other that could get them expelled to being friends. Their cruel behavior is never really addressed. Even Ann, a scholarship girl who adores literature about poor, virtuous girls discovering they are secretly duchesses, isn’t spared at least one bizarrely modern detail–she cuts her wrists. Self-mutilation certainly isn’t out of the question for that time period, but wrist cutting is so associated with the emo subculture for me that it strikes me as modern.
Otherwise, the supporting cast surpasses Gemma. Felicity is ambitious with a vicious streak, Pippa is beautiful and a little dumb, and Ann struggles against her invisibility and her class. Gemma’s briefly glimpsed mother has much more to her than first meets the eye, and Miss Moore, their art teacher, reminds me of nothing so much as Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society, including teaching students who meet in a cave in the dead of night. Miss Moore is the sort of protofeminist that Gemma should have been, discussing reading as a means of improvement and attempting to expand her charges’ minds without dismissing the wants and dreams of those who truly do want to be homemakers and wives.
The novel is both written from Gemma’s perspective and in present tense, two styles I don’t tend to read a great deal of. This allows for Gemma’s sarcasm and wit to be put to better use–she memorably describes a housekeeper as “warm as Wales in January”. The present tense also makes the suspense roll along a little easier and makes everything seem a bit more urgent.
The fantastical element isn’t particularly explored in any detail until the second half of the book. The visions advertised on the book flap are misleading–Gemma has a grand total of two visions. Her magic powers are connected to entering and exiting the realms, a mysterious place of spirits, danger, and magic. The best part of the novel, in my opinion, is a stretch where Gemma, attempting to get a spiritualist to help her, accidentally takes herself and the spiritualist into the realms–it’s a lovely and tight little piece that would have made for a wonderful short story. The magical mechanics are explained minimally, as the focus is less on the how it works but giving power to the powerless. Several plot points concerning the realms and the forces involved with it are not explored here, but, I imagine, in the next two sequels.
Bottom line: A good historical fantasy novel with a maddeningly modern heroine and a few stumbles along the way, A Great and Terrible Beauty isn’t shy about its status as the first of a series, but still manages to combine a suspenseful plot with a point about the powerlessness of women in Victorian society.
I rented this book from the public library.