A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Publishing Date: 2003
Genre: young adult, fantasy, gothic, history
It’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?
Welcome to the realms, a place where dreams and nightmares can come true.
It’s late Victorian England, when British citizens exerted their imperial power abroad and technology has yet to rock the foundation of their world. Dickens has published, Tennyson is praised, and girls are still required to prep for their season. Gemma, a rather headstrong and independent girl for her time, is sent to boarding school after her mother’s horrible death. With each girl she meets, secrets build, and visions occur more rapidly. A young Indian man, Kartik, threatens her repeatedly for succumbing to the visions, but offers no help or guidance to close off the realms. As Gemma befriends Ann, a scholarship student, Felicity, a navy admiral’s daughter, and Pippa, a beautiful but doomed daughter of a merchant family, they are bound by a secret so strong their lives could be in jeopardy.
What Bray does so well with this first book in a trilogy is the suspense, uncanny, and horror qualities that mimic gothic novels. She captures the tone of popular works in that particular time period. The haunts of a girls’ boarding school, the architecture, a mysterious fire, magic, incorporation of literature, undiscovered documents, a slow and suspenseful plot — all of it is brilliant gothic.
Bray also creates a very modern voice for Gemma. It’s quite believable! Gemma, on the outside, is the typical teenage Victorian girl, standing straight, lacing her corsets, working hard on her studies, aware that her one and only job is to land a husband. She understands “keeping up appearances.” It’s her inner voice that makes her stand out. It makes me wonder if girls were truly like this in the Victorian age. She’ll say one thing out loud like a proper young lady, but in her mind she’s snarky, witty, wishing to rebel against society’s rules and restraints on women.
And this is why, even after all the threats Kartik gives her, she’s curious about her visions, about the realms. Everything is pure and wonderful and she is liberated for the first time in her life. But this sort of freedom, even the magical sort, has dire consequences.
The realms are tricky to describe. To get there by will, it takes a portal of light. Once through, anything one wishes will come true. An evil spirit has taken over the realms, though, and temptations are everywhere for Gemma, Felicity, Ann, and Pippa. One bite of the realm’s magical fruit and they will be lost there forever. Despite this, it’s a bit of a heaven for the girls. They are liberated. Anything they dream up becomes real. In short, the realms are the dreamland. The girls become so caught up in its magic that daily life no longer has meaning for them; they would rather live in a fantasy.
As I have read the entire trilogy, I know what happens in the second and third books. Overall, the trilogy deserves a 4-star rating — it’s true historically, the world of the realms is expanded, and Gemma becomes stronger with each passing chapter — but for a first book, this is a 3. It’s good, I enjoyed it, but it truly is simply an introduction of what’s to come. It cannot work as a stand-alone.