Friday, February 24, 2012

Review - A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1)A Great and Terrible Beauty 
by Libba Bray
Hardcover403 pages
Published December 9th 2003 by Simon and Shuster
Premise: Ganked from Goodreads: 
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. 
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.

My Review - with Spoilers:

First impressions… what a great name for this book.

Beauty is both great and terrible, all kinds of beauty. Beauty of character, of landscape, of mystery & magic, of possibilities… so many different kinds of depth, all great in their own way, and all so flawed as to be terrible, too.

I thought of this book in terms of Pro’s and Con’s:

– The writing style is superb. It was effortless to slide right back into the story when I set it aside for responsibilities.
-          Gemma is such a complete character, full of wise moments, personality, desires, regrets & flaws.
-          Her friends are so different. Her close circle of three friends are each unique, brim-full of pro’s and con’s all by themselves.
-          The romance is tantalizing, just like the other-world. Almost-amazing, almost-incredible, disappearing like butterflies when you experience it, gone before it’s really embraced. Teasing.

-          The beginning leaps so quickly from India to England to the school, there’s so many new scenery introductions, it’s hard to get involved quickly.
-          The school is so dark, the girls so… harsh & cruel, there was very little to draw me in, rather it pushed me away.
-          Gemma disappointed me on a few occasions. When Mrs. Moore was asking about the painting of the Lady of Shallot, Gemma was thinking of how the girls are all like sheep, unable to think on their own. And yet, when she was questioned, she didn’t have any other thought in her head, nothing to separate her from being a sheep, too. I thought if she was clever enough to label the others as “sheep”, she might have been clever enough to see something in the painting. Something!
-          Although the school was for refining young women, it seemed as if Gemma had no background training before arriving. She didn’t know how to think or have an opinion and I had felt differently from her relationship with her parents in India. I assumed she knew some things to, you know, be "refined".

While I really loved the development of character and the theme of discovery and forgiveness, I was often uncomfortable. Libba Bray is… willing to go places that made me uncomfortable more than a few times.

Like the near-sex experiences were so real and so barrier destroying… that I struggled with how far, how fast followed with… “just a dream?”  I wanted to take that final leap of dream-was-real, was real for Gemma, was real for Kartik, but I’m not sure it was meant that way. Did Gemma have out-of-body experiences? or real dreams?!

When the girls went to the Realm together, they really went. Gemma brought back pieces of that world with her, it was real. I was ready to believe in more of those real moments.

The witchy stuff made me uncomfortable, too. The entire foursome walked a thin line between real séance freaky stuff and the story of the Realms. The candles and prayers to blood-drawn goddesses were side show stuff to the real story, I felt. They added some daring and cast long shadows, but they pushed the boundary beyond my comfort zone and beyond what I would want to recommend. And honestly, that is sad, because this book is absolutely beautiful.

By “beautiful” I mean, that character growth, where Gemma matures into someone she didn’t realize she could be. Where her mother transforms into who she was in real life. Where Felicity grasps at her deepest desires and realizes they aren’t always pure. Where Ann steps into her skin and awakens to life.
That part of this book is achingly sweet, something I would give everyone I know. But it’s inseparable from the blood sacrifices, which is how Libba Bray meant it to be, I have no doubt. Her writing is that deliberate, that skilled, that edgy… that she pushed boundaries on purpose.

Originally I rated this book a 3.5 – "Worth Reading", but my memories are pushing it to 4, sweeter as it simmers.

I disagree that the romance is a stand-out. There is no relationship between Gemma and Kartik. There is longing and elusive what-if’s and maybe’s, but no connection from mind to mind. He is part of the Rakshanna, which never shows it’s real face. As the book progresses, his crypt notes seem more and more powerless, delusional and wistful thinking. (I thought. Maybe the next books reveal more?)

The power of this book is in passing those shocking barriers – of the séance stuff and near-sex, beyond bases 1 & 2 in the dreams…. And most importantly in the power of forgiveness and the girls’ growth into being themselves.

En fin, I'm not sure this book is for everyone. I think if you are enticed with the spoiler-hints of boundaries pushed, you'll probably love it. If you're not interested based on my review... I doubt that would change if you read it.

The Amazing Author:
Libba Bray

Libba BrayWhat is it about writing an author bio that gives me that deer-in-headlights feeling? It's not exactly like I'm going to say "I was born in Alabama…" and somebody's going to jump up and snarl, "Oh yeah? Prove it!" At least I hope not.  
I think what gets me feeling itchy is all that emphasis on the facts of a life, while all the juicy, relevant, human oddity stuff gets left on the cutting room floor. I could tell you the facts–I lived in Texas for most of my life; I live in New York City with my husband and six-year-old son now; I have freckles and a lopsided smile; I'm allergic to penicillin. 
But that doesn't really give you much insight into me. That doesn't tell you that I stuck a bead up my nose while watching TV when I was four and thought I'd have to go to the ER and have it cut out. Or that I once sang a punk version of "Que Sera Sera" onstage in New York City. Or that I made everyone call me "Bert" in ninth grade for no reason that I can think of. See what I mean? 
God is in the details. So with that in mind, here is my bio. Sort of. 

TEN THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT ME by Libba Bray... (Read on!!  Do!!  At Goodreads)

Find & Follow:

Her Website
Her Journal

Get the Book:
Barnes & Noble
On Amazon - choose yer weapon, they're both $9.99 - the book or the entire trilogy, hmmmm...

I'm on the fence about continuing with the series...
What do you think? 
Should I read on?

Rebel Angels (Gemma Doyle, #2)  The Sweet Far Thing (Gemma Doyle, #3)


  1. I liked the first book, was okay with the second, but seriously wondering what I was doing with the third (maybe, I just wanted some closure). If you didn't like the first, I can only see it going downhill as her situation turns more absurd in the later ones.

    Nonetheless, still beautiful writing.

    1. I do love her writing style. Have you read other books by Libba Bray? I almost nabbed that one where the models crash on the beach... looked fun!

  2. I'm biased because I really loved this series, but I think based upon your review, you should at least considering trying the second one (Rebel Angels).

    The romance, and the two orders/organizations definitely get a lot more fleshed out than in AGATB, and in general both Rebel Angels and A Sweet Far Thing are much better than the first novel in this trilogy. The friendships, the relationships between the girls, the world, and the plot definitely improve, as does the writing.

    But, the creepiness factor does stay there throughout the series. As does the more sexualized moments. :S I never felt it was overdone, or overly nauseous, but what's okay for one person might not be okay for another.

    The best advice I can give you is to try, because I think if you really enjoyed AGATB (and your review was pretty on par to my own thoughts about the novel), you really will love the next two. Just my two cents :)

    1. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy it, I just felt like it was only half... like, if Kartik would've been embarrassed when he saw Gemma right after that dream, some confirmation that he was crushing on her, too, or something... you know? Otherwise, it's got all the weirdness without enough hints at effecting anyone than Gemma.

      I guess I do have a problem with that. If someone is dreaming & traveling to another Realm, but she's the only one who knows about it, is it real? So, Gemma's relationship with her friends was much more alive and real to me than her relationship with Kartik... and I WANTED that connection with Kartik to be that good and deep - even if neither would admit to it.

      Does that make sense?

      Can you tell me if Kartik & Gemma make real progress or just imaginary progress?!

    2. Haha, I understand exactly what you mean.

      First of all, yes, never fear, Gemma and Kartik really do have a real, in the physical world, relationship that progresses and develops throughout the series. (no imaginary progress for sure!) While their relationship doesn't become the absolute center to the novels (like for example Twilight), it's still a close second, if not third.

      Second, from what I remember, Gemma's dreams about Kartik are more a manifestation of her desire and sexual awakening, and aren't anything real. Bray tends to emphasize on the oppression of girls during this time, not only sexually, but kind of socially (in how they have to act, etc...), and I think a lot of AGATB is really focused on that, (to the point where it feels like she's nearly shoving it down your throat.)

      However, just because those very highly charged moments don't happen per say, doesn't mean they they don't have moments throughout AGATB: The cricket bat, their one kiss, and the fact he helps and looks out for her during the ending stuff. It's not a lot, but it's a sign of their developing trust. On Kartik's side of things we do get a chapter from his POV in Rebel Angels that will show you what he thinks of the lovely Gemma Doyle, so don't worry about it being one-sided either ;)
      Hope this helps!

    3. PHEW!!! :-D

      The sexually oppression makes sense... I think I didn't want to believe that's what that was. Denial in such cases is bliss! But the budding relationship they do have makes more sense if "all that" was in Gemma's... um, awakening dreams.


  3. I had this series recommended to me and I got the first one and I haven't read it yet.

    I'm curious to read it now when I get to that place in my TBR pile.

    1. Hey... it's memorable!! And as I said, sweetens over time! :-)

      You sound like you have an organized relationship with your TBR pile!

  4. I love this series. I think the relationship with Kartik gradually becomes deeper, so maybe you'll like that part more if you continue.

    Lindsey from

  5. I agree the romance is pretty much non-existent. The book does have great character growth. You are right the book It went SO many different places.

    I have the second one my TBR pile. Judging by the comments maybe I should check it out !

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