I became acquainted with Libba Bray earlier this year when, after encountering many gushing reviews, I read her most recent book “The Diviners”. I had a very conflicted reaction to this book -loved the story and setting and the horror elements; hated pretty much all of the characters particularly the main female lead. I was left curious to see what the author would do with a different series and her Gemma Doyle trilogy looked to be right up my alley interest-wise. Hence, I picked up “A Great and Terrible Beauty”, (first in the Gemma Doyle Trilogy) but I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect and was worried that it would have some of the same character issues of the Diviners.
Lo and Behold I was pleasantly astonished at how wonderful this book was. Gemma Doyle is a 17 year Victorian Era girl living in India when her mother is (essentially) murdered. The family uproots and heads back to their native England and Gemma’s grief-stricken Father quickly packs her off to a boarding finishing school for girls called Spence Academy. Gemma struggles with her grief and guilt over her mother’s death while she tries to fit into what for her is a foreign environment. And then there are the visions to deal with…
The setting and story is deliciously gothic and revolves around secret societies and school girls with magical power they are ill-equipped to deal with. At its best this is a coming of age tale and the story does an excellent job portraying the allure of the Realms to girls with no power over their lives in a restrictive, male dominated and class driven society. The Realms are an obvious representation of freedom and independence and it is no wonder Gemma’s bullying friend Felicity is the one most powerfully addicted to the Realms as she is the girl who longs for control and power the most.
The friendship that springs up between the four girls, Gemma, Ann, Pippa and Felicity, seems unlikely at first but Bray takes her time and makes it work brilliantly. The friendship between them, binding but fickle and always shifting is a quite realistic depiction of the relationships between young girls. And there are consequences to the girl’s immaturity and bad judgment which I think sometimes is sadly lacking in YA books and which drives me CRAZY. Gemma ignores her Mother’s warnings and as a result consequences are had, lessons are learned and some growing up actually occurs. I am concerned that this will not carry into book two but for now I’m pleased with how Bray has handled her characters.
The narrator of the audio book is generally very good but is one thing that bothered me - the voice for Anne. She is read with a “lower class” British accent which having been brought up in the academy I don't she'd have, scholarship student or not. I’m sure this was done deliberately to accentuate her status (or lack thereof) but despite being a little thing, it continually niggled.