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)