Apr 23

Book Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1)A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

This book had a few rough patches and a few bursts of brilliance that evened each other out. I liked this book overall, especially for the surprising feminist undertones, but it had a rough start.

It starts out in India, on the day of Gemma’s 16th birthday, with Gemma walking sullenly through the market with her mother. Both are English, and of course both have red hair because that’s how you know someone is magical. Wait, was that flippant? Sorry, it’s just such a trope. Then her mother dies under mysterious circumstance and Gemma is sent to England to live in a dreary boarding house where everyone is cold and the girls are mean to her. But Gemma has magic powers (she sees visions) so she’s able to get one over on the girls. All of this felt like a story I’d read a hundred times before and I wasn’t particularly impressed by it.

But then things shift. Because Gemma ends up making friends with the girls, first an uneasy alliance and then later a true, deep friendship. They stop being “the pretty one” and “the bossy one” and “the plain one” and start to have more depth to them. The girls find an old diary of a girl who died in a fire in the building, and through the rather clumsy exposition of one of the teachers, stumble into the secrets of a society called “The Order.” Meanwhile, Gemma is being warned away from using her power by a cute boy who followed her from India, though why he didn’t talk to her on the ship, which was after all a very long voyage, is beyond me.

So, the feminist part. On one hand, the cute boy’s society is horrified by the idea of this magic power being in the hands of a bunch of teenage girls. On the other hand, would they really be that much worse to have it than the old men? The girls sometimes abuse the power, yes, but sometimes they just use it to win for themselves what their society does not allow them to have: autonomy, the ability to choose their own mate, being seen, being heard, being strong and capable, and being recognized as a human being. Gemma starts out taking the cute boy’s warnings seriously, but after a while, just sees him as one more man trying to put girls back in their boxes because nothing terrifies them more than a woman with power.

While I liked the feminist part, and while the girls did start to have more depth, they weren’t as well-developed as they could have been. I had a hard time remembering which one was which some of the time. Pippa was the pretty one, and Felicity was the blonde bossy one, but which one was Cecily, again? I didn’t much like the art teacher character, not because of how she was written, but because her friendship with the girls did not seem like it flowed naturally. Her ideas felt too modern, and her friendship felt forced. I also didn’t get the sense that the boarding house was a real place. We didn’t read about more than a handful of teachers and students, so my mind’s eye pictured a movie that didn’t have enough money to hire extras. Also, the boarding house is described as this gloomy castle, and her room is described as being cramped and dark, but after the initial scenes the setting isn’t really a part of the story.

There would have been plenty of room in the book to do more character building and setting had the author deleted the vision scenes. I did not like the vision scenes. I’m not a fan of using visions or dreams to push the plot along. It’s a crutch, like adding salt and butter to a dish to make it taste better because the cook used ingredients that weren’t very good quality. Even the scene where her mother died didn’t need to be shown to her in a vision. The visions confused me. She’d be having a vision, and then she’d be back. Did she actually leave? What did the people in the room see? Did they see that she vanished? Did they see her body there just staring? Sometimes it seemed as if she went to another place physically, (like when she got herself out of the church she’d been locked in) and sometimes it seemed as if she just imagined stuff (like when they saw the spiritualist). I like magic in novels, but I want it to make sense.

I also didn’t like that the book was written like the first of a series. I like trilogies, but unless I know in advance (and know I want to commit to reading three books) I want to have the novel end in a satisfying way at the end of the first book. This wasn’t the worst example I’d seen of this, but it was still kind of disheartening to realize that the threads would not be wrapped up because the author planned to resolve them in later books. I mean, we learn when she first comes to the boarding house that the wing is closed because there was a terrible fire in which some people died. That kind of implies that we’ll learn what happened, right? Nope. We do learn a few things, but the best kind of trilogies are ones in which the first story has ended but we love the character so much we want more adventures, not ones in which the character is kind of thin but the mysteries weren’t answered so we want to find out what happens.

My best description of this book is that it’s a dark YA supernatural/fantasy novel set in nineteenth century England with teenage girls as the main characters. If that description sets your heart fluttering, you’ll probably be thrilled with it despite the unspectacular characters and you’ll probably be willing to read as many books as it takes to find out what happens.

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