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*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations


***A Great and Terrible Beauty

by Libba Bray

Reviewed March 8, 2004.
Delacorte Press, New York, 2003.  403 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (JF BRA).

A Great and Terrible Beauty tells the story of Gemma Doyle, a proper British girl from the Victorian age, living in India with her parents.  I should say that Gemma isn’t quite a proper British girl, but her parents would like her to be.  The book opens on her sixteenth birthday.  She wants very much to go to London, so she argues with her mother.  Then she has a strange and disturbing vision, and her mother dies.

After this, Gemma does get to go to London, to Spence Academy, the same finishing school which her mother attended.  Her visions continue, and she discovers a diary left from a former student whose experiences seem similar to hers.  With the help of the diary, she and her friends begin traveling in other magical realms.

I have a strong, perhaps unreasonable, prejudice against books written in present tense and normally won’t even read them, but this one had me intrigued from the beginning.  It’s a powerful book, and I think that many teens will love it.  In many ways it was reminiscent of the movie “Dead Poets’ Society,” with the bright students sneaking away at night doing something forbidden by the restrictive boarding school.  In this case, their rebellion involved magic rather than the society of great poets.  Both stories had the rebels using a little alcohol and talking about sex.

There were some unfinished plot threads.  I hope there will be a sequel, since there are still things Gemma needs to do at the end of the book.  I still have no idea what is the role of the mysterious young man who follows Gemma from India and tells her not to have any more visions.  We still don’t know who Gemma’s enemy is.  What happens to the teacher who leaves?  To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure what exactly happened in the big climax at the end, or how it all fit with Gemma’s mother.  That may just come from the difficulty of explaining magical events in mystical realms, but it made the book a little unsatisfying for me.

Libba Bray did a magnificent job creating the characters.  I like the way that the people who I thought were going to be typical boarding school villains ended up being Gemma’s friends, yet still kept the same characteristics.  They felt completely real, with flaws as well as strengths.  On the other hand, the negative side to this was that none of Gemma’s friends was thoroughly lovable.  They do something mean close to the end of the book, and that made it harder to care about what happens to them.  Still, they were real, believable characters, and it was easy for me to see how Gemma cared about them.

All in all, this was an intriguing book.  I will be watching eagerly for a sequel.

Reader comment:  An anonymous reader gives this book Five Stars with the comment, "I loved this book and hope Libba Bray will come out with a sequel very very soon."

Mandi gives it Four Stars with the comment, "A very good read.  I really enjoyed the story.  I felt connected with each of the characters, and I really liked that it took place in the 1800's."

Review of another book by Libba Bray:
Beauty Queens

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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