Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Main Character: Sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle
Location: England
Time period: 1890s
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy, Gothic romance

Brought up in India, Gemma yearns to go to England. Expected to behave as a proper young lady, she is becoming petulant and rebellious. As they walk through a marketplace, Gemma gets into an argument with her mother and runs away in anger. She has a vision that her mother is in danger and turns back only to find her mother and another man dead in the street. Soon after, she is sent to Spence Academy in England--talk about be careful what you wish for.

At Spence Academy, Gemma learns secrets about herself, about strange visions that started when her mother died, about her ability to cross into a magical realm and channel its magic. She also learns that she is not the first to do so--she finds a diary written by Mary Dowd, an earlier student who had the same abilities.

Though set in Victorian times, Gemma and the other girls have some modern characteristics--Gemma herself admits that she can be sulky and contrary, and Felicity is a definite "queen bee" who surrounds herself with mean girls and wannabes. And yet they cope with situations that are certainly Victorian--pretty Pippa is being forced to marry a middle-aged but wealthy man to erase her parents' debts.

A Great and Terrible Beauty reminded me of the gothic romances of authors like Victoria Holt that I adored when I was a teenager, but updated with a modern sensibility. Though the book can stand alone, it is actually the first of a trilogy; the other two books are Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing. Libba Bray's website is and her blog is

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