GENRE: Historical Romance w/ paranormal elements
HONORS: NY Times Best-Seller
REVIEW: There were not many options for girls in Victorian society, a fact that becomes obvious to sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle upon her arrival at the Spence Academy. Initially socially marginalized, Gemma gradually befriends three other girls, even as she begins to experience disturbing visions that place her in the center of a mystery that followed her to London from the streets of India, where her beautiful mother died. A Great and Terrible Beauty reads like part gothic romance and part Victorian pulp with a healthy dose of the paranormal added to spice things up. There's of occult danger and Eastern 'otherness' (both sexy and mildly threatening to a respectable, young Englishwoman) and enough lurid drama to keep any tween / teen gobbling it down. Despite Bray's use of the first person present progressive tense, which gets tiresome at times, A Great and Terrible Beauty is a great deal of fun and surprisingly hard to put down.
OPINION: Libba Bray knows young women. Gemma Doyle is a good heroine, as far as historical fiction goes - she's active, she has agency, she's flawed but passionate. There's a fair amount of conflict and fight in her, which makes her easy for a modern girl to relate to. Gemma's friends are also interesting - the drab, unattractive Ann (who is a cutter, due in large part to her implied depression and alienation), the gorgeous, ornamental Pippa and Felicity, who, of the four, is the most complex.
A Great and Terrible Beauty is fun, dark, a little edgy and sexy in a safely historical way. It's strength lies in the fact that all four of the girls, Gemma, Pippa, Ann, and especially Felicity, want autonomy - they want to valued for themselves and, in their own way, they fight for that privilege in a Victorian world that valued silence in its women and girls. For that alone, A Great and Terrible Beauty is worth reading.
IDEAS: The first in the Gemma Doyle trilogy, A Great and Terrible Beauty is a solid suggestion for girls looking for historical romance and / or drama. Though not necessarily for reluctant readers, the book appeals on a lot of levels, even as Bray explores serious issues like alienation, autonomy and the historical role of women and girls. A nice choice for a free reading title or as a book club selection - it has a lot of discussion points.