Flashback Friday: A Great and Terrible Beauty

by Libba Bray

The Premise via the Goodreads blurb (which is notably different than the original first edition jacket copy):

A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy–jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.

Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order. A Great and Terrible Beauty is an impressive first book in what should prove to be a fascinating trilogy.

This book though. Where to begin?

Okay, the cover. I remember picking it up in Barnes and Noble. It was crazy eye-catching. At the time, not every YA novel had a girl in such a pose on the cover. And to be honest, I still find the cover striking, maybe because I’m so emotionally attached to it now. I think I picked this up in the same trip I got Dracula and Twilight. This was the first book I picked up.

This is a book that celebrated and understood young women. Within the pages of the Gemma Doyle trilogy girls were complex, and ever growing and changing. We were allowed to grapple with big ideas, and big adventures. Things that were fantastical, but so real at the same time. The atmosphere was great, feeling dangerous in both the paranormal and the relationships. The setting was distant but still felt so pertinent. And there was one hell of a liminal space.

I would definitely clump it in with the YA I read as a teen that really defined me. And, full truth, I loved that there was a lively, lovely redheaded protagonist. At the time this seemed novel to me.  I think A Great and Terrible Beauty is thought of fondly by a lot of bloggers that encountered it in their teens. This gives me hope because I definitely think the next generation of young women should be allowed to go on this journey. Not because I see a lack right now, but because it’s so good. And surely you can’t have too much? Granted, my own thoughts are influenced by my love of the series as a teen. How would I respond to it today as a first time reader? I’m not sure. But I’m glad I got to experience it at a time in my life when it was so easy to love a thing completely, to fall under its spell and inhabit the world.

Also, I still have stanzas of “The Lady of Shalott” memorized because of this book.

Who else has fond memories of A Great and Terrible Beauty? Or anyone just digged in recently?


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