Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Genre: Young Adult
Length: 403 pages
This book begins in 1895 in India on Gemma Doyle’s 16th birthday when she begins to get visions just prior to her mother’s suicide. Fast forward a few months and Gemma and her father have relocated to London, and she is sent to the Spence Academy for Girls, a finishing school.
At Spence, Gemma continues to be plagued with visions. She also meets Felicity and Pippa. At first, these girls do pranks to see where Gemma will fit in socially. But soon, though blackmail Gemma becomes part of their crowd along with her roommate Ann. Through her visions, Gemma finds a buried diary and learns to travel to the realms, a dream-like place between Earth and the afterlife. By bringing her new friends to the realms, they form a special bond. In the realms, their dreams can come true. They can be beautiful and loved and have an independence that girls could not have back in the 19th century. They can even do magic such as turning leaves to butterflies.
Gemma finds her mother in the realms and learns many secrets of her mother’s past. She also learns that the realms were closed off from the world because of a terrible incident that happened twenty years before. Gemma now has the power to re-open the realms and bring some of the magic back to the real world. But doing so has dangerous implications since an unknown person by the name of Circe wants to have the magic and power for herself.
Aside from the first chapter, this book takes place during the fall of 1895.
I was immediately immersed into Gemma’s worlds at both Spence and in the realms. At Spence, I felt their claustrophobia of being stuck not only in a boarding school, but knowing they would never have independence as women even after graduation. In the realms, the author did a great job painting a picture with all of our senses, and I could feel the independence and power that was not available to women in the real world at that time.
The four main characters were well developed. Ann was the poor mistreated orphan with no self-confidence. Felicity had a magnetic personality yet wasn’t wanted by her own family. Pippa was the beauty who wanted true love rather than an arranged marriage. And Gemma was the one who had the power and thought differently from the others. Many readers will likely identify with one of their unique personalities.
The book was written in first person from Gemma’s viewpoint, so it was easy to get into her mind and be part of her internal struggle of what to do with her visions and newfound power. Should she follow or mother’s advice and warning about Circe, or should she give into her friends’ wishes to have some magic for themselves?
It was fast-paced and original. I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next. Fortunately, when you finish this book you can read book 2, Rebel Angels and book 3, The Sweet Far Thing. I immediately picked up Rebel Angels and so far, it is just as good.
Although it was Young Adult, the language was sophisticated and held my interest. I even found myself having to check a dictionary frequently, partly because so many terms have changed in the last 100 years.
I am a member of two book clubs, and we read a variety of genres. Plus, as a Young Adult author, I am constantly reading YA books to improve my writing.
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