Great and Terrible Beauty

Ghosts? Visions? Mysterious Deaths? What Did You Expect From A Boarding School In A Gothic Mansion?


Title: A Great and Ter­ri­ble Beauty
(Ama­zon, Goodreads)
Author: Libba Bray
(Ama­zon, Goodreads, Web­site)
Series: Gemma Doyle Tril­ogy
Pub­lisher: Ember
Genre: Young Adult, Mys­tery, Fic­tion
For­mat: Paper­back
Source: Pur­chased from bookstore


Vic­to­rian board­ing school story, a Gothic man­sion mys­tery, a gos­sipy romp about a clique of girl­friends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy–jumble them all together and you have this com­pli­cated and unusual first novel.

Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an uncon­ven­tional upbring­ing in India, until the day she fore­sees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to Eng­land, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ acad­emy with a mys­te­ri­ous burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by pow­er­ful Felic­ity, beau­ti­ful Pippa, and even her own dumpy room­mate Ann, until she black­mails her­self and Ann into the treach­er­ous clique. Gemma is dis­tressed to find that she has been fol­lowed from India by Kar­tik, a beau­ti­ful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nev­er­the­less, they con­tinue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mys­ti­cal Order. The clique soon finds a way to accom­pany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Vic­to­rian wives, but they dis­cover that the delights of the realms are over­whelmed by a men­ace they can­not con­trol. Gemma is left with the knowl­edge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mis­sion to seek out the “oth­ers” and rebuild the Order. A Great and Ter­ri­ble Beauty is an impres­sive first book in what should prove to be a fas­ci­nat­ing trilogy.


Let me start out by say­ing, I picked this up and couldn’t put it down. I had come across this book a few times in the store and online as a sug­gested read­ing and really thought I wouldn’t overly enjoy it. After a friend’s insis­tence, I started it one morn­ing and fin­ished it that after­noon.  Be warned, it will hook you and keep you up if you start it late at night.

Spoil­ers ahead! Not too many major ones, but a few. I left out the really inter­est­ing ones. You are warned.

I laughed a bit at the histri­on­ics of Gemma and really started to form a neg­a­tive opin­ion from the start only to be pulled into a mys­tery shortly after start­ing it. She is con­stantly fight­ing with her mother to go off to Eng­land to school as she feels that is where she should be and not with her par­ents in India. After her mother’s death, that is just what she gets. She arrives at Spence Acad­emy to find that what she had roman­ti­cized about Eng­land and going to school there was not at all what it really turned out to be. Her mother was out­side of the norm when it came to a woman’s place in the fam­ily. She was an equal to Gemma’s father, but as she soon learns at Spence (reit­er­at­ing what her brother told her), women are ‘objects’ meant to lis­ten and chat about the weather or dance beau­ti­fully, but not to have their own thoughts or to be equals with their part­ners. She is also thrown into the school as an out­sider hav­ing joined the school later than most of the girls who prac­ti­cally grew up at Spence.

She attempts to befriend her room­mate, Ann, but always seems to be putting her foot in her mouth as Ann is quite depressed and feels every­one is only mock­ing her as she is one of the school’s schol­ar­ship cases and will be train­ing as a gov­erness. Through­out the book (despite know­ing oth­er­wise from Smash’s review of this and the sec­ond book in the series) I feel that Ann will be the one to have some­thing hap­pen to her, but she is with us with­out any major hap­pen­ings through­out the book. She does grow on you though and Gemma does man­age to befriend her and help her become part of the ‘pop­u­lar’ girls group.

The other girls in the group are Felic­ity, who basi­cally runs the group, and Pippa, her best friend (till Gemma man­ages to get in good with Felic­ity by keep­ing her secret meet­ings with the gypsy a secret). I find Felic­ity to be inter­est­ing and I like that she is a brazen and main­tains a proper front for the world of Spence, but has a devil-may-care atti­tude when she can let down her guard and I feel that she will be an ever devel­op­ing char­ac­ter as the books continue.

Pippa, well in a way I’m glad she gets what she gets in the end. She is per­fect exam­ple of girls in that time period. An object to be traded and owned. Her fam­ily is try­ing to marry her off to a wealthy older gen­tle­man so that her fam­ily won’t become pau­pers from her father’s gam­bling debts. Her wants and cares aren’t taken into con­sid­er­a­tion and she is expected to do as her fam­ily instructs. Nev­er­mind that she’s had to deal with epilepsy her entire life, but she has to keep it a secret oth­er­wise she is not mar­riage mate­r­ial. Tragic as her death is in the end, at least she gets what she wants.

The dynamic of the group is very good as far as a group of girls in their sit­u­a­tion, but I liked that despite their out­ward appear­ances, Bray doesn’t hold back from show­ing how much they are hurt by their fam­ily and crave their accep­tance and praise. When the day comes for all the fam­i­lies to visit, Felic­ity is on edge about see­ing her father and can’t seem to sit still a minute, Pippa is dis­traught as her fam­ily brings the old man she is to marry and becomes engaged, Ann is an orphan and has no fam­ily to visit with, and Gemma sees just how bad her father has got­ten with his opium addic­tion, and can’t under­stand her brother and grandmother’s atti­tudes. Each one’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity is shown that day.

This is not to say the books is all down and depress­ing. There are a great many pas­sages about the girls time spent together as they explore the diary of Mary Dowd, their classes, and how their friend­ship forms a bond between the four.

And their explo­rations of the realms which is what makes this book stand apart from being very generic. The realms are an oth­er­world where mem­bers of the Order (a group of women with magic) would go to learn about them­selves and their abil­i­ties until they were knowl­edge­able enough to take the magic with them into the real world. In the realms, Gemma finds her mother and learns a great deal. Felic­ity meets a huntress who teaches her about her strength. Ann grows more and more beau­ti­ful as she sings, one of her best attrib­utes is her abil­ity to sing, and Pippa’s hearts desire is to meet a hand­some knight who appears and fauns over her giv­ing her the love and admi­ra­tion that she has longed for.

Too soon they take the magic from the realms and although it ben­e­fits them to some degree in their daily classes and such, it begins to take a toll and Gemma soon real­izes that by tak­ing it out with­out being able to con­trol it prop­erly she has let Circe’s min­ions into the realms where they try to cor­rupt the girls.

There is also the mys­tery of what hap­pened to the East Wing of the school which burnt in a fire years ago, the miss­ing class por­trait, who is Mary and her friend, the mys­te­ri­ous boy who has fol­lowed Gemma all the way from India, the gyp­sys who set up camp not far from the school. There are so many things hap­pen­ing, but they are woven so intri­cately into the story that you don’t real­ize how immense this story is yet how easy it is to be swal­lowed up in it. Even though it is a story that takes place in a his­tor­i­cal period with fan­tas­ti­cal worlds and magic thrown in, you can’t help but feel as if this could really hap­pen. That is one of the best parts to a good fan­tasy for me.

Here’s a ques­tion for those of you that read it though that has plagued my thoughts: Gemma has her mother’s social diary and even­tu­ally she has Mary Dowd’s diary, so she is very famil­iar with her mother’s hand­writ­ing. How does she not know the con­nec­tion? Did her mother’s hand­writ­ing change that much? Or did it just never occur to her?

I know I’ve given some plot spoil­ers away and I know that I’ve left some ques­tions lin­ger­ing in your mind, but well that’s the plan, to suck you in and make you want to read it for yourself.

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