Sunday, October 5, 2008

“A Great and Terrible Beauty” by Libba Bray

Gemma Doyle isn't like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, 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 a chilly reception. But she's not completely alone ... she's been followed by a mysterious young man, who warns 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 group called the Order. It's there that her destiny waits ... if only she can believe in it.
   A Great and Terrible Beauty is a curl-up-under-the-covers kind of book .. . a vast canvas of rustling skirts and dancing shadows and things that go bump in the night. It's a vividly drawn portrait of the Victorian age, when girls were groomed for lives as rich men's wives . . . and the story of a girl who saw another way.
A Great and Terrible Beauty [2003] is the first volume in The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, a YA gothic fantasy. I’d read good things about the series and decided to start at the beginning. The events of the story occur between the months of June and December in 1895.

Gemma’s and her family are English living in Bombay India, her father a prominent businessman. Gemma and her mother are passing through a marketplace when her mother is approached by two men who whisper a message to her mother that appears to upset her. Gemma and her mother argue and they separate. It is a recurring argument about Gemma’s thwarted desire to return to London for school as she feels she is missing out on her rightful life. Within minutes of leaving Gemma is assaulted with a vision of her mothers death as well as the death of one of the men.

Gemma gets her wish as the family returns to England after the tragedy and Gemma is sent off to the Spence Academy, a girls finishing school for the upper class. There she joins the ranks of the privileged as an outsider but through a series of events becomes part of the central power clique. Along the way Gemma continues to experience visions and dreams, which leads to her discovery of a diary that contains clues to her abilities. She reads in the diary -
I will tell you the story of how we found ourselves in a realm where dreams are formed, destiny is chosen, and magic is real as your handprints in snow.
Together with her new friends Felicity, Pippa and Ann they form a secret group they name The Order and explore Gemma’s new found magic. As to be expected there are numerous scenes of day to day life at the academy and the tribulations of young women trying to find their place and achieve their dreams. Bray also deftly portrays the constraints of women in Victorian society and its’ expectations.

Through the diary, the girls discover the answer to the mystery of a terrible fire that killed some students decades earlier. Gemma herself comes to realize her mother also held a deadly secret that has serious repercussions to her own life and the nature of her magic and destiny. The relationships between the girls are wonderfully drawn as they shift and evolve from their shared experiences and choices made both good and bad.

Part mystery, part gothic fantasy, and part coming of age story, A Great and Terrible Beauty is a warm, engaging tale for all readers. Recommended.

Visit the special Gemma Doyle website.

Read an excerpt.


  1. I actually got this from the library once but I wound up taking it back unread :( I'll have to try it again when I find the time.

  2. So many books, so little time. YA fantasy writers are turning out some great stories these days. I do plan to finish the trilogy...when I also find the time.

  3. I read the first two novels in the Gemma Doyle trilogy several years ago, and still haven't yet picked up the third. I will, though... it is a wonderfully written story. I almost want to reread the first two books to refresh my memory. Do you think you'll read the next two novels?

  4. Christine I have them on my wishlist but they haven't made it to my TBR pile yet. I rarely leave a series unread once I have started so I am sure I will get to it. I quite enjoyed the first book.

  5. I borrowed them from my local library and in fact, over the summer I went looking for The Sweet Far Thing more than once and it was always out. I've been in a YA mode lately--maybe it is time I look for the last Gemma Doyle book again!


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