Jul 6, 2009

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Set in 1895, A Great and Terrible Beauty is the story of Gemma Doyle, a girl who grows up in India and is sent to a finishing school in England after her mother’s death. Gemma’s mother died in mysterious circumstances, and Gemma is worried she might be to blame. The day it happened, she saw her mother dying in a vision, and the visions have returned since then. At Spence Academy for Young Ladies, Gemma and her friends begin to uncover the secrets of The Order, an ancient organization of powerful women, as well as the story of two students who died in a fire at Spence many years before.

I enjoyed A Great and Terrible Beauty a lot, but sadly I can’t say I loved it. There were things that really worked for me, and others that didn't so much. For example, this is a boarding school story and I’m a big fan of those, so that was an instant point in favour of this book. But what happened was that I was much more interested in the details of the lives of Victorian boarding school girls than in the fantastic plot, and as the book advances the latter becomes more prominent. It’s not really that it wasn’t interesting—maybe it was just my reading mood at the moment?

Another thing I was very interested in were the characters: Gemma herself, her friends Ann, Felicity and Pippa, and their teachers at Spence. Even if in different ways, all had to deal with the constraints Victorian society imposed on women. I also loved the fact that Libba Bray didn’t make the pretty, popular girls the villains. I feared that she might at first, but no. They are fully human: by no means perfect, sometimes immature and even cruel, but young girls trying to make the best of difficult circumstances; trying to live in a world where all their choices are made for them; trying to survive even though they don’t fully buy the ideological justifications they are given for how things are.

The fate of one of the characters really broke my heart. I won’t give it away, of course, but I can say that what made me so sad was that I really couldn’t see a way out for her. It was a no win situation no matter what she decided, and sadly a situation in which countless girls found themselves.

One of the things that kept me from loving this book was the writing. It was by no means bad—most of the time it simply got the story told, which is fine—but I wish it had been more subtle. To be fair, the things that struck me as too obvious or overexplained often had to do with historical contextualization, which can have the advantage of making the book accessible for everyone, especially young readers who might not have read about the Victorian era before. But still, I am a big fan of subtlety, so this bothered me a little bit.

Another problem is that there were times when I wasn’t sure if I completely believed Gemma as a character. I know she had an unconventional upbringing, and I do love the fact that the book defies traditional gender roles and Victorian sexual ideology in general, but I don’t know, I kept thinking that maybe this could be achieved without straining credibility. The way Sarah Waters does it, for example (and okay, I realize it’s not really fair to compare anyone to Sarah Waters).

Still, I cared about the characters, I loved the atmosphere and the period details, and I was entertained. I would like to know what will happen next in Gemma’s world—this book is part of a trilogy, but fortunately the ending is not one of those. It leaves enough questions lingering to justify a sequel, but it doesn’t make you suffer if you don’t happen to have the next book at hand.

They read it too:
The Zen Leaf
A Way of Life: Reading
The Novel World
And Another Book Read
Em’s Bookshelf
What Kate’s Reading (Thank you again for the book, Kate!)
Tiny Reading Room
Book Nut
In Spring it is the Dawn
A Garden Carried in the Pocket
books i done read
Bookshelves of Doom
Words by Annie
Dog Ear Diary
Library Queue
Lesley's Book Nook
The Written World
It’s All About Books
Leafing Through Life
The Story Siren
Mr Magoo Reads
Sassymonkey Reads
Shelf Love
Books Love Me!
Bookgirl's Nightstand
Reading Adventures

(And I’m sure I’m missing several… let me know if yours is one of them.)


  1. I agree absolutely with you on subtlety. I think perhaps in a way, I've gotten used to books of this sort trying to make a statement, rather than just being there for entertainment purposes. That's unfair of me, I suppose, but it's in my nature and I can't help it. so much of the YA lit I've read lately is laden with themes and undercurrents and all sorts of stuff, and i expected no less from this, but there wasn't much there. When I realized that and read just for fun, it was enjoyable, but i would have liked it better had it been a lot more...well, subtle, like you said. :)

    I did like the fantastical elements, though.

  2. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who was underwhelmed by these books. There were parts I liked, and I'm like you, I can't resist a boarding school book, but as a whole, I could have lived without these.

  3. This is one of my favourite books! It made want to read the next book: Rebel Angels. The third book, The Sweet Far Thing wasn't bad but not very good either. But I enjoyed reading them. Fantasy, historical fiction and YA mixed together - my cup of tea. :)

    I wrote about this book here.

  4. I totally agree with your review. I enjoyed it but didn't love it and I just looked back on my review and saw that I read it in 07 yet haven't looked for the sequel yet. I think this is one of those books I probably would have loved as a teen but not so much now.

  5. The book does sound interesting, and like it was worth your time to read it.

  6. I'm guessing I'll probably have some of the same complaints as you, but I'm reading this one finally dammit! lol...I have a funny story with this book. I have bought it/mooched it, three times now because I always get it and then think "nah, I won't like that" and end up giving it away :p But I'm keeping it and reading it this time! I love boarding school stories too and for some reason, I missed that it took place at a boarding school in all the other reviews :p That's a plus!

  7. I'm sorry this was a bit disappointing for you. And from the sounds of the comments, you're not alone. I've been looking forward to book, as Annie loved these sooooo much. Of course, I'll probably still read them, but maybe I won't feel quite so sad that I can't get to it right away.

  8. I think the lack of subtlety bothered me enough that I quit reading, early on. You shouldn't link to me- I hardly read any of it and had nothing to say, and back then my abandoned-book reviews really did not share much info...

  9. I actually finished up this series last month. I liked the first book the best. It just feels like the whole series could have been edited and tightened up which would have made it much better.

  10. I am not sure whether I would enjoy this set. I am sorry it wasn't what you were expecting.

  11. Amanda: I think she made some good points about how constraining gender roles were (and are), but I don't know, something I can't quite pinpoint was missing. I guess subtlety is the only word I can think of :P

    Jenny: Yeah, it was fun to read but I'm in no rush to get the others.

    Josette: Thank you for your link! Sorry to hear the third one was a bit of a let down.

    Iliana: Yeah, I can't see myself rushing to get them either. I might pick them up eventually, though.

    Bermudaonion: Despite everything I'd say it was, yes :)

    Chris: I think you will enjoy it, yes. Maybe not love it, but it's a worthwhile read. And lol, 3 times :P

    Debi: I guess the only problem was that I was hoping to REALLY love it. I mean, a Victorian boarding school!!!11 Sarah Waters has spoiled me, I guess :P

    Jeane: Sorry, I just collected the links through google reader and didn't realize you hadn't finished. Mind if I keep it, though? I still think that's useful information! Also, I love your new profile pic :D

    Melanie: Yes, from the first book alone I can see that. Oh well, it was still a fun read.

    Scrap Girl: Lots of people love this series, so don't take my word for it! And I did enjoy it despite everything.

  12. I liked this book too but not enough to read any further! Loved your insights into what you didn't particularly enjoy in this book...for me, the characters just didn't make an impact on me so I was able to shut the book and not think another thought about them.

  13. Thanks for an honest review. I still haven't picked this one up. I'm not sure I will!

  14. I'll wait for it to come to the library I think, but I would certainly like to give it a try. The boarding school element really appeals.

  15. Hi Nymeth...Sorry this one was not so great for you. I have this one and haven't read it. I started it a couple of times, so maybe I have the same problem you did. Just didn't cut it. Thanks for the honesty.

  16. Thanks for your insightful review, Nymeth! I'll definitely check out this book, but I'm not sure if I'd want to buy it sooner.

  17. I enjoyed the next two books in the trilogy much more than the first. Particularly the last book was my favorite. I wish there had been more to come. The first book was slow for me but I'm really glad I picked up the other two and kept going.

  18. I'm not sure if I'd pick this up but thanks for your review, Ana. :)

  19. I haven't read this one yet, but I know I will. Sorry you didn't love it. It sucks when that happens. I'm reading Tender Morsels right now. And everyone I know has loved me. Me...not so much. It's getting better for me. But I almost quit reading it after the first 2 chapters I disliked it so much. Now that I'm half-way through, I am appreciating it a lot more. We'll see how it goes towards the end.

  20. I actually listened to books 1 & 2 on tape. So when book 3 came out, I started reading it and realized I was a bit lost. I guess I don't always get everything when I listen, so I think I need to read this again. I do remember having some of your feelings, but I'll have to pick it up again to see! Thanks for the nudge! :)

  21. Staci: I liked the characters at the time I was reading, but you're right - they didn't stick with me for very long after I finished.

    Holly: Lots of people loved it, so don't let me dissuade you! :)

    Cath: I was happy I won a giveway copy rather than investing in it myself :P It IS worth a try. I just expected to completely love it, but sadly didn't.

    Wisteria: It was a fun read and I'm glad I picked it up, but yeah, not one I see myself returning to.

    Melody: You might really enjoy it! A lot of people do. And I did like it a lot. I just didn't love it :P

    Dar: Well, that's good to hear! It definitely makes me want to continue with the series.

    Alice: You're welcome!

    Stephanie: Sorry to hear TM isn't working for you :( I loved it from the start, but I know that others had trouble getting into it at first too.

    Becky: lol, I bet that would happen to me too. I'm easily distracted :P

  22. I really like this trilogy. It's been a while since I read the first one, though. I keep thinking I should reread, but I am not sure if I would like it as much again... This is why I don't reread! Fear! lol

  23. No, I don't mind at all if you keep it. Links are always good! I've got to put up some to others who've read the book on mine.

  24. I, too, was much more interested in the details about the lessons and the everyday life of these girls attending a boarding school in Victorian London than in the Realms and the fantastic plot. But this didn't surprise me, because I'm not that much into fantasy :)

  25. I was also in the I-like-this-but-I-can't-quite-love-it camp. My main problem was that I never felt that Bray had a good grasp on how her magic worked. It threw me enough that I couldn't quite commit to the book. And, like you, I was mostly interested in the everyday stuff.

    I did enjoy the second book quite a bit more, but unfortunately I just couldn't finish the third one. The shaky magic was still an issue, (and I'll tell you, I'd started to find it pretty silly by that point), but as the series progressed I had a lot of trouble believing in the girls' friendship. I felt like Bray was telling me one thing and showing me another. I wouldn't normally abandon a series so close to the end, but I really couldn't stomach more than 1/3 of that final book.

  26. Nymeth, I'm glad you liked it even if you didn't love it! It's been a few months since I read it but I think I remember that my favorite part of the book was the almost always uncomfortable relationship between the four girls, at that particular age when it seems like your best friend can also be your biggest competition. I liked the book too, but sadly haven't gotten around to reading the next ones in the series too.

  27. I have this one on my MP3 player. I really should get around to listening it. My niece really liked it.

  28. I am sorry to hear that this one wasn't great because I have it on my shelf and have been looking forward to it. I have a problem with mediocre writing, so I think I would probably find that I wouldn't be pleased with it either. I may end up giving a few chapters a try to see if I could get into it before passing on it though. Thanks for the honest review.

  29. Kailana: lol, sometimes I worry too. It always makes me so sad when a book doesn't live up to my memory of it.

    Jeane: Good! :)

    Alessandra: As you know I do like fantasy, so I was surprised! But then again, I also like historical fiction a lot :P

    Memory: That's really a shame about the third book. And I know what you mean about the whole magical system not being quite convincing.

    Kate: I did like their interactions a lot too. It was a fun read despite everything. Thank you again!

    Beth: I hope you enjoy it even more than I did :)

    Zibilee: I probably sounded like I liked it less than I actually did. I didn't find the writing mediocre - I just wish it had been more subtle sometimes. But it IS a good book, I think :)

  30. I've had this one on my shelf for ages and haven't read it, though it's gotten so much press! Maybe I haven't touched it because if I like it, then I'll have to read the rest of the books in the series? Who knows. This was a really thoughtful review. I also don't like authors who blatantly point out all the historical points- I prefer them to just meld into the book. But maybe Bray gets better at it in the later books.

  31. I should really get to reading this one, I've had it for so long. But then there's so many others . . .

  32. I really enjoyed the first one of these books (review here). At the moment though I am stuck halfway through the third one and it is going to take a bit of effort for me to keep reading.

  33. Thanks for your review, even though you didn't love this it's helpful to hear what worked (and what didn't.)
    I do have this on my shelf, haven't read it yet, but hope to soon -soon meaning sometime before I'm eighty! ;)

  34. I am glad that you liked the book, even if you did not love it. I have decided that I am not that big on boarding school books. I am not sure why. Maybe the ones I have read have just irritated me and so I have been left with a distaste for them.

  35. The authors name is so familiar to me but I can't place why. Strange. Sorry this didn't hit the mark for you. It can be a pain when everything is stated just so.

  36. I enjoyed this very much, strangely enough. There are many things that if I stop to think, should make me love it less, like the writing sometimes, or the fact that the girls' supposed strong friendship is so flimsy.
    I'm reading the second one, and I have to say the lack of subtlety in the writing style is more evident for me now. It bothers me at times, almost as much as the way the friendship is handled. There's too much jealousy and petty annoyances between them to make me believe in it, but I'm still enthralled by the story, unlike you maybe, so I'll definitely keep reading.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.