A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray


One drowsy afternoon, at a dusky library overlooking the sea in a distant island, my seeking eyes landed on this book stuck in the furthermost corner. There are times when the moment of first acquaintance between two fictional characters is as interesting as the one between a reader and a book.

Libba Bray's debut novel, the first in Gemma Doyle Trilogy, takes us to the turn of the nineteenth century boarding school for girls with its cliques and daring pranks, school mysteries and a lost diary. Almost it tethers on the typical coming-of-age-set-in-a-boarding-school cliche (running to the woods under the moonlight, dancing in circles, napping on a floating boat in the middle of a lake, entwined flowers on hair, etc) nevertheless with a smear of fantasy, it becomes something dangerously richer, lusciously darker and a fine setting to play up a young woman's riotous whims and the exploration of one's self; the light and the dark.

I must say the pacing of the story is solid and kept me intrigued. The sinister mystery surrounding our heroine's mystical power furthered the thrilling aspect of it. It has a great imagery, like a screenplay playing out on your head, but with lurking shadows hovering. Some scenes take you back in nostalgia of which the book's prose evokes often. The magical realms feel like a state of otherworldly intoxication which preys upon the delights, greed and longings of those who wants to gain it, like a dream metaphor for human's earthy emotions and their ever changing nature.

Gemma, our heroine who narrates here, is quite flawed though she totally fills the shoes of her age; willful, mysterious, daring, almost awkward and without much grace. I am at least thankful that Bray's portrayal of her toed the line between the annoying and the admirably strong. She is likable as it is without the writer forcing it on readers. I am trying to overlook that at some point during the suspense, the characters fail at being themselves and things get a bit predictable but the book still managed not to drown, coming into a full circle somewhat in the end.

What remained to me was the unraveling and study of the contrast in things, in one's self, that most of life's choices are almost tinged with light and dark, like a chiaroscuro. And always, as in any magical world, there is always something for something, a sacrifice for a sacrifice. To me, it is a coming of age novel and more.

Book Summary:

A Victoria 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 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 otherworld 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.

Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Genre: Mystery, Fantasy, Historical
Published: 2003
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: ♨♨♨ 1/2 ( 3 1/2 cups - Imagining scenes on this book is like straight out of that Jordan Scott's film, Cracks, with a dash of magical high going on. Quite piercing to read and enthralling on its darkly idyllic imagery.)

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