Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

3.5 out of 5 stars

Libba Bray’s historical settings are deliciously atmospheric, and the magic in her stories sparkles with dark possibility. A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray (Gemma Doyle #1)

Apparently I read this back in 2008, and gave it the same rating. I have zero recollection of that.

Gemma Doyle arrives at Spence Academy for girls in 1870-something, a rotten time to be a girl with a brain. Having fled India after the mysterious murder of her mother, she’s meant to cover such a scandal by becoming the obedient zero of a 19th century brood mare required by English society.

Surprise, she doesn’t.

Gemma discovers that she wields the power to cross beyond our world into the Realms, a land of glorious wish-granting magic – with a dark side waiting to escape from that world into ours.

Libba Bray is never, ever dull. Stuffy English customs? Her characters rake them over the coals, even as they’re bound by them. All-girls boarding school? She turns the strident classism and teenage bullying on its head. And the magic: it’s always a nightmare dressed like a daydream, captivating and lurid.

This isn’t as good, nor nearly as complex and drop, as Bray’s as-yet unfinished Diviners series, but it’s a strong step on the path. Gemma is exceedingly likable without being a trope, and her catty, spoiled classmates soon grow real, rounded personalities. The worst of them become a pleasure the read.

There are twists and turns here too, of course, satisfyingly well-suited to a boarding school mystery.

[Apparently back in ’08, much development was happening on a film version of the book. Bray announced a while later that plans were cancelled – in a Live Journal post, bless her heart. Some of us are old enough to remember those.]

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