Saturday, 9 January 2016

Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray



2003 • 403 pages • Simon and Schuster

I wasn’t really sure what to think of A Great and Terrible Beauty when I went in to reading it. If I were to categorise it, it would fall under historical fiction/fantasy/mystery/young adult – and maybe comedy? But I guess that’s down to Libba Bray’s writing style rather than the actual premise of the book. Historical and Gothic fiction are two of my favourite genres and I love novels set in Victorian England, so bonus points straight away. With the novel being made up from so many elements of different genres I was worried this might come off a bit slapdash for me, but as it turns out I really enjoyed it.

I feel like quite a lot of people have heard of/read this book already, but I’ll kick this off with a basic summary. The story is set in 1895 and follows Gemma Doyle, a sixteen-year-old who has come to England from India after her mother’s death. She’s sent to Spence, a finishing school for young ladies where all hell starts to break lose when Gemma experiences clairvoyant visions – visions that started when she was still living in India and foretold her of her mother’s death. Anyway, these visions are freaking Gemma the hell out, and she ends up teaming up with three other girls to explore her new-found power and what it all means. There are realms, and magic, and the supernatural, and I know it all sounds a bit weird, but it’s really good. What better way to make boring old finishing school more interesting than by practising magic?

The one thing that I perhaps thought might grate on me with this book wasn’t the elements of fantasy and supernatural in a late Victorian setting - after all, that’s what fiction is all about and it’s fun. No, what actually nearly bordered on the irritating was the finishing school setting that so closely resembled the modern-day high school, it even came with its own group of Mean Girls that nearly made me groan out loud. If there’s one thing I cannot stand its self-righteous, cliquey school girls who are bitches for the sake of being bitches. I mean let’s face it, we’ve all been to high school and the last thing I want to do is be reminded of how petty teenagers can be.

So, when I realised that our two resident Queen Bees Felicity and Pippa were going to be consistent and central characters in the plot I thought to myself, “Really? Am I going to have to put up with 400 pages of school girl rivalry and bad pranks? Ugh”.  But, Bray saved herself by having a protagonist who wasn’t a pushover and even though the plot follows teenagers in a boarding school and yes it has its fair share of catty behaviour, it didn’t bother me once the plot got going.

The plot actually has a good flow to it. There’s a lot going on and not a lot of explanation but that’s part of the story – you figure it out along the way as Gemma goes in search of answers. And it’s not all painting pretty pictures of fruit and learning the waltz (which they do, but it is a late nineteenth century finishing school), because there is a steady pace of action and intrigue throughout with a good bunch of interesting characters.

I’ll openly admit I didn’t understand everything that went on: I don’t quite understand how and why the magic exists or why Gemma is being pursued for her powers. I know she clearly has some kind of advantage in her abilities and she’s much more powerful than she thinks, but to know the history of everything more and why it’s all happening would be cool. This is the first in a trilogy so everything clearly unravels a bit more in the following two books, and I know this review sounds a bit hit-and-miss, but I really did enjoy this. It wasn’t quite what I expected but more than I thought it would be at the same time. Plus, Libba Bray’s writing is really funny and her humour is kind of dry and witty which was surprising but enjoyable. A solid three stars.

Overall rating: 3 stars

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