Summary: A 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.
Gemma, 16, 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. –Patty Campbell, Amazon.com
Review: I've read this book twice – the first reading was a few months ago and I was afraid I wouldn't do it justice in a review. I also figured I'd give it a second chance as I was far from keen on it the first time through. I like it better this reading than the first reading, but I've also come to realize what bothers me about Libba Bray's writing style: it lacks a certain fluidity. She has a tendency to use periods in place of commas, especially when she is in a lengthy description. YA books should be exemplary prose, and I don't feel this is the case here; and it made for choppy reading. Bray's first person voice in the novel switches back and forth from a journaling style to a story telling style and it was noticeable to me and therefore disruptive while reading.
I also have issues with how modern the characters seem to be in a novel set in the late 1800s... especially when Bray goes to such lengths to keep the story historically anchored. (She takes a huge amount of the book with the plot exposition and laying the foundation, maybe too much). Perhaps this is an attempt to make it interesting to Young Adults, but to me it feels like over simplification. As readers, if they are mature enough to find an historical novel interesting, they are intelligent enough for historically accurate characters. I wish she had chosen modern or historical, as modernizing history sacrificed her story, in my eyes.
I'm also not sure what happened in the climax. I've not only read the book twice, but I've reread that particular passage several times and I'm still not sure what happens or, more importantly, why it happens. I will continue reading this trilogy as I'm curious to see where her writing style and plot are headed, but I can't say that I am recommending that you do the same...