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on May 20, 2004
What, in your opinion, is more important: What an author has to say or how an author chooses to say it? Take, for example, Libby Bray's, "A Great and Terrible Beauty". Set in a Victorian era girl's boarding school, the book has the uneasy task of having a great voice and yet not much in the way of a plot. Bray struggles to weave together the different components that made up (wealthy) women's lives in 19th century Britain. At times she is exceedingly gifted. At others, she falls short of the mark.

Gemma Doyle was born and raised in India with her mother, father, and brother. Having just turned sixteen she is like any other adolescent girl, getting into squabbles with her mom and pouting that she cannot go to live in England. Deliverance for Gemma comes as a very mixed blessing when she witnesses her mother's suicide (in a vision, no less) and is sent to an all-girl's finishing school outside of London. Falling into the usual petty squabbles of popularity and independence, Gemma eventually comes to realize that there is more to the Spence Academy, and herself, than she could ever have known. In a madcap tale of gypsies, magical powers, and deep dark soul-sucking evil Gemma has to face up to her own personal demons as well as the very real spirits that wish her, and her friends, harm.

One one level, this is just your typical romantic bodice-ripper complete with virile dangerous young men and the comedy of manners that set the standards so long ago. Reading this book really seemed to me to be a kind of "The Craft" meets "The Little Princess". Gemma befriends both popular and unpopular alike and much of the book dwells on the problems haunting each of her friends. While Bray has an excellent voice for dialogue and situational comedy, I couldn't quite figure out what she was trying to say with her characters. One minute the two popular girls, Pippa and Felicity, would be playing incredibly cruel tricks on their classmates. Next, Gemma is their best friend and they all bare their souls over cups of whiskey. While the story really does make you feel as if these girls are getting closer, I found it very weird that when some of the girls go over the edge and deal in dark magics and (in a sense) murder, Gemma is perfectly willing to forgive them three pages later and never mention it again. There is no blame in this novel, a thing I found peculiar (especially when you're dealing with sixteen year-olds). When Gemma's friends get an innocent teacher fired, Gemma minds for maybe two hours and then, once more, forgets.

Then there's the fact that we never meet the villain. This book might have just as well plastered the words, "SEQUEL COMING SOON" on its cover for all that it alludes to future books. It is very rare to read an entire book about a villain whose name appears from page seven onwards, and yet we never meet them even once. The resolutions in this book are shaky at best and though the bookflap for "A Great and Terrible Beauty" states this this is "the story of a girl who saw another way" out of the standard roles written for women, by the end Gemma really hasn't changed anything in the least.

And finally there are the gypsies. Why is it that gypsies are always the standard ethnic group for magical doings? There are actual gypsies in the world, you know. This book, however, prefers the romantic version, choosing to forget that they are an actual culture with actual dealings in the world. Turning gypsies into the mythical magical people that exist only in the minds of over-romanticizing white people not only does real gypsies a disservice but it makes books like this one offensive. I won't even dwell on how Bray chose to display natives of India as well. Let's just say this book reads best if you like rooting for Anglo-Saxons.

I'm being harsh on this book, and for good reason. Bray is capable of wonderful writing. The slow building threat of Gemma's situation,and the fact that she is repeatedly told to cease and desist all magic or pay the consequences, all this is very good and dark. Unfortunately, there's never a payoff at the end. The gypsy Kartik tells Gemma to stop or else, but he never makes good on his threat. Gemma never really pays for anything she's done either. I was so confused by what was good and bad in this story that I spent three quarters of the book believing that Gemma's mother, for all intents and purposes, was an illusion or an evil creature in disguise. That's just me, but in all other ways the book is very bad at rewarding the reader for slogging through the foreshadowing. And boy oh boy is there a LOT of foreshadowing. In any case, I think with a little rewriting this could have been an excellent novel. Unfortunately, we'll never know now.

None of this is to say that "A Great and Terrible Beauty" isn't a great read. It really is exciting and interesting. I'm simply warning you that it is possible that you might feel a little let down or cheated at the end. The climaxes never climax as much as they could. The fearful moments are never quite fearful enough. It's a book of halfs, never a whole. But for any reader who wants to dwell in the darkness a little and read a tale about a girl who has the capability of giving herself a great deal of power, go to it. It is, above all things, rather fun.
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on July 3, 2004
This book is about Gemma, a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in India with her mother and father. After her mother is murdered (something that Gemma witnesses in a strange and frightening vision), Gemma is sent to a finishing school in London. The story takes place in 1895. Gemma gradually gets to know the other girls at the school. Most of them are in some way emotionally damaged, and they deal with the hopelessness of their situations by taking everything out on those who happen to be weaker than themselves. What ends up tying Gemma to several of the girls is a diary she discovers, the diary of two girls who attended the school years ago and practiced magic. In a way, this book has the elements of a mystery, as Gemma discovers the link between her mother's murder, the two girls, and her own visions.
I'm still not sure if I like this book. For a great deal of the book, I had the feeling that I didn't really know any of the characters, not even Gemma, even though the book was from her point of view. Maybe this was intentional, but it was disconcerting. If you're looking for a book with nice, pleasant characters, you should look elsewhere, because there aren't really any here. They all do mean things, even Gemma, and the reasons they have for doing these things doesn't seem to detract much from the fact that they did them. Really, though, you'd think that, after reading all 403 pages of this book, that I'd feel like I knew more about the characters and events, but this book feels like it leaves more questions behind than it answers. I've heard that there will be more books about Gemma, which is good, since there needs to be more if the story is to be understood. The book leaves Gemma's powers, and her relationships with the people she calls her friends, in limbo.
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on April 7, 2004
I wanted to love this novel, I truly did. After all, it's written by a fellow Brooklynite and it's about topics I enjoy: psychic powers and female bonding. But, ultimately, I found this book only mildly satisfying, mostly because the action just isn't believeable, even for a story about the supernatural. The novel has some good points, which is why I give it three stars, but it certainly promises far more than it delivers. If you are interested in the interpersonal dynamics among young people, and also enjoy an element of mystery in your novels, try instead The Secret History by Donna Tart, which is a truly first-rate novel and far surpasses this pedestrian effort from Libba Bray.
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on February 7, 2004
This book I had my eye on for quite some time and when i finally bought it it wasnt what i suspected.
Gemma Doyle is sent to a private school for proper girls after her mother dies. While she is there Gemma finds out that she can go into a realm and find dead people and communicate with them. When she brings friends along with her, Kartrik, a boy who is apart of a group trying to stop her stays close to her. She soon finds herself in trouble and has to get out.
As you can see it was hard to explain it. This book did have its great spots that i really got in to but it was slow. I read this book in about a week and a couple of days (thats long for me) and i finished it mainly to see what would happen to a character and also to see if it got better. Also I felt that the author threw in things everyonce in a while to give it a new spin and it didnt go well with this story.
I really wished I didnt buy this book but oh well, maybe I'll forget about it and maybe read it again later.
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on January 21, 2016
I was given A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray as a birthday gift, which was great timing because I had just stumbled onto the series myself and wanted to look into it more.

This was such an unexpectedly good read. I really enjoyed it. I don’t know why I went into it with low expectations, I guess the idea of a boarding school seemed really cliché and filled with snobby and predictable girls, not something I thought I would find very intriguing. And while this was sort of like that, it was also a whole lot more.

This reads like a gothic Mean Girls, a clique of catty, popular girls picking on all the outcasts and making school a living hell for each other. But circumstance brings four of these totally different girls together to form an inseparable sisterhood bond and discover the mystery surrounding the school and its previous students, as well as Gemma’s secret visions.

The supernatural elements of the realms were my favourite. They sounded like paradise, so pretty and a canvas to create pretty much anything your heart desires. Bray explores this power in detail, which was fun to read. A place like that deserves to be properly explored and I wasn’t disappointed.

I thought I had everything figured out early, and while I could sort of pick up on where things were going, there were enough surprises to keep me on edge. I really liked the back story of Mary and Sarah; I liked how it all came to reveal itself and what that meant for the new generation of the Order. I really, really liked how they recreated the Order, that these girls came together like they did and how they had a bit of fun with what they learned and then had to band together to survive when it all blew up in their face.

As usual, there was a love interest for Gemma. The chemistry between her and Kartik was strong, but there was such a distance between them that this didn’t take away from the sisterhood or the story. It created the intrigue and anticipation but they didn’t throw all their cards in at once, so I definitely look forward to seeing where this relationship leads them.

There was so much magic in this and Bray really took advantage of that and embraced it, creating fun situations and awe-inspiring lands. It was everything you’d want from a book with magic and far more than what I was expecting from this. I am definitely looking forward to reading the next two books. I love falling into something that surprises me so.

Originally posted on
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on December 29, 2009
At 16, Gemma Doyle is suddenly afflicted by visions. She sees her mother's death moments before it happens, and then finds herself shipped off to boarding school while she wonders what's wrong with her.

At the school, Gemma has to contend with mean girls in cliques, and the mystery of what happened in the school's burnt East Wing, which has been locked for years. Things are further complicated by Gemma's visions, and by the persistent young man who orders her to shut them off.

Then a vision leads Gemma to a diary that tells her about another girl who had these powers ' but what happened to her, and how is it connected to the East Wing?

This is a fantastic fantasy / historical fiction novel that is incredibly popular with the teens at my library. Bray's world-building is excellent - I normally hate historical fiction, but Bray's rich descriptions never go on too long.

"A Great and Terrible Beauty" has magic, adventure, mystery, romance, and a bit of gender politics, too. A fun read! The sequels are "Rebel Angels" and "The Sweet Far Thing."
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on November 14, 2009
After witnessing (through second sight) the death of her Mother, and a mysterious stranger she met moments before, Gemma finds herself uprooted from everything she knows from her life in India to the very place she was begging her Mother to go the day she died. London.
Here in Spense Academy, Gemma must deal with fitting in while coming to grips with the mysteries lying around her Mothers death and her new found ability. To complicate things more, she has been followed by Kartik, who is encouraging her to suppress her power should she open up the realms to a dark and menacing force.
Caught between her new friends, Kartik, and her own misgivings about who she really is, Gemma must decide whether to pursue answers or take the word of a stranger and shut herself off from this power.

A believer that any storyline has potential, I really wanted to be pulled into this book. I did not find the plot to be gripping and, worst of all, the character relationships to be compelling. I admit that the female characters were well developed and believable (considering the time period they lived in), and Bray is a talented in her writing style, I just felt that alone was not enough to draw me into the book. I would have preferred more time be taken with Kartik or even Miss Moore (one of the teachers).
Perhaps this is meant to be developed in the sequels, but honestly, if I hadn't purchased them already this book would not have compelled me to continue on in the series.
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on August 2, 2009
If you enjoy a Victorian Era novel, this is a good one to choose. It begins in India in the days of the Raj and continues on to England where the young heroine is sent to a finishing school after witnessing her Mother's suicide.

Gemma Doyle is followed by a mysterious young Indian who wears a black cloak and watches over her very carefully. He warns her that she is in grave danger and it is vital that she remain hidden and blend in with other young ladies who are preparing to make their débuts into Upper Class society.

She struggles to gain acceptance from her classmates and to understand the strange visions which plague her and lead her deeper and deeper into a world of magic and imagery. One that frightens her and yet has a huge attraction for her because it seems that he Mother is trying to connect with her.

All in all an interesting read for those who enjoy some light reading from an author who has found and portrayed this type of story very well. Enjoyable summer reading while sitting on your favourite swing or hammock.
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on February 5, 2006
I came across this book quite accidently when I was standing in line to purchase another book. Price wasn't bad, and the fact that it's kinda gothic and set in Victorian era got me curious into buying the book. Now I'm contemplating if it's a book worth keeping in my own personal library...
Cons: The realm (to me) felt like something that is intangible, that because none of the 4 girls know how it runs or works (so we see this realm thru fresh eyes), I was a bit apprehensive and disconnected about what went on inside the realms, that not even Gemma (the magical conduit) could displace me inside the realms. The realm revealed too much beauty and paradise to believe, I had my doubts about what lay beneath (well, thanks to my own experiences, I'm very cautious and am not always trusting of others). For e.g., I suspected that Gemma's mother in the realm was not really her mother, but an evil spirit in disguise working for Circe (boy was I wrong). The characters being 16 and naive are flawed in that they only choose to see the good/beautiful aspect of the realm, they completely ignore the warnings and evil/ugly aspects of it. I sometimes forget that they're inexperienced obnoxious teenagers and that they're in a repressed societal era (much unlike the teens of today's society), that I end up forgiving the characters and their flaws.
Pros: I loved the reality that LB has created for what it's like to be a hormonal teenager set in the 1890's. Same issues and problems as modern girls, but set in a repressive atmosphere where they were unable to freely choose their own destiny. Plus I loved reading the relationship between Kartik and Gemma blossom.
This book kept reminding me of a combination of movies with similar themes from "The Craft" (Fairuza Balk = Felicity Worthington, Robin Tunney = Gemma Doyle) and "The Little Princess" (snobby rich popular girl vs. spunky new girl).
I plan on re-reading the book, just to resolve any unanswered questions I have about the realm and get a better understanding of it the 2nd time around. I may actually decide to keep the book, and continue with collecting the trilogy. The rest better be good.
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on July 16, 2004
A Great and Terible Beauty skillfully combines a traditional Victorian setting with modern-style teenage drama. This is Mean Girls as gothic melodrama, and both the rich, repressive finishing school setting and the antics of troubled, bitchy teenage girls are familiar, but uniquely enjoyable combined like this. Teenage struggles against adult hypocricy are the same in all time periods, and the power of [repressed] female sexuality is a theme that arises perfectly from the Victorian-- and adolescent time period.
In these ways it is a perfect book, and the fantasy elements -- menacing secret societies, utopian alternate worlds -- should be the icing on a delicious cake, but this is where the author stumbles. As with so many supernatural plots, the mystery is tantalizing at first, but as more is revealed, it only gets confusing and messy. There will be a sequel, which might tie the mystical strands tighter into the overall structure of the story, but the ending of this novel left me unsatisfied, and not in a good way.
Still, it's a great read for anyone who enjoys period fiction or remembers what it's like to be 16.
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