Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Great And Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Category: Fiction - Fantasy
Series: Yes - Book 1 of the Gemma Doyle series

It’s 1895 and after the death of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though … she’s being followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

It’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds, as she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called The Order. Her destiny awaits … if only Gemma can believe in it.

Great cover, great title. This is a Young Adult fiction. I bought it because I was under the impression that it was a gothic story. Sorry to say that it’s not. It does begin with a terrific gothic feel, but it quickly dissipates to reveal a Victorian supernatural/fantasy coming-of-age story. It is narrated by the heroine, Gemma, in the first-person point-of-view.

Gemma is a special girl. She has the gift of seeing the future, only, she doesn’t quite know what to do with it in the beginning. Her gift couldn’t save her mother from a mysterious death … a death that brings deep anguish and guilt to Gemma. She returns to England and is soon sent to Spence, a finishing school for young ladies. Spence is a proper gothic edifice, with the proper spooky atmosphere. It also shelters a bunch girls who, despite their amenable and pretty demeanour, are hateful and nasty. Thrusts into this unfamiliar place and unpleasant company, Gemma has to very quickly learn to fend for herself. It is also here that she hones and taps into her gift, after finding a diary belonging to a former Spence student. Her gift opens up a magical, seductive world … one that Gemma must tread and treat with utmost care. Whether she can do good or evil with her gift depends on the decisions that Gemma ultimately has to make.

Gemma’s character has so much promise in the beginning, when she goes head-to-head with Felicity, the vicious and manipulative leader of the school’s “in crowd”, when she defends Ann, her room mate, plain and poor. Gemma the anguished girl turns out to be not only quick-witted and valiant, but also headstrong, rash and bratty. After that awesome start, I was disappointed when she succumbs quickly to Felicity and they become fast friends … I thought Gemma is stronger and cleverer than that. After finishing the book, I can’t say that I like her. I understand that Gemma is only 16, so I should cut her some slack, shouldn’t I? I can accept her teenage angst, know-it-all attitude and unpredictability, but there is no excuse for her repeated hurtful and hateful behaviour towards her mother, who has carried a terrible burden throughout her life … who dies to save Gemma.

The supernatural/fantasy aspect of the story is just so-so. As I’m a jaded old bag, already exposed to much horror both in life and in fiction, this aspect of the book isn’t great for me. I feel that it plays second fiddle to the actual theme, which is the angsty, peer-pressured teenage growing-up travails of Gemma and her friends.

There are some interesting characters, such as Miss Moore the teacher and Kartik, the boy who follows Gemma from India to England, who I wanted to know more of. I feel that they are not properly developed … perhaps they will be further explored in the sequels?

What saves this book from being a major disappointment is the writing, which is brisk, sharp and somewhat witty.

I may ho-hum at this book, but I think its target readers (young adults) will find it far more appealing.

3 out of 5. I'm ambivalent about it - an average read.


Jennie said...

Hmmm, I just bought this one, but it sounds like that heroine might annoy me! Well, one of these days I'll give it a shot. :)

Jace said...

Jennie, perhaps the heroine may annoy you less than she did me. :) I'll keep a look-out for your review.

Melissa said...

I am really intrigued with the supernatural aspect of this book. Thanks for the great review. After reading Take Me There, I realized how much I enjoy paranormal/romance books.

Jace said...

Hi, Melissa ... welcome. I've got to check out Take Me There! :D