A Great and Terrible Beauty
(Gemma Doyle, Book One)
By Libba Bray
Format: Audio Book
Narrator: Josephine Bailey
Length: 11 hours & 19 minutes
Genres: Fiction, Young-adult, Fantasy, Magic, Historical Fiction
Take a Peek: Audible | Overdrive | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads
Story Rating: 4 Stars
Performance Rating: 3 Stars
Overall Rating: 4 Stars
High school me LOVED this book. I read it when it first came out at the height of my hormonal teen angst and now that I’ve re-read it (re-listened to it??), I can see why I was so infatuated. I mean come on, it’s about a gaggle of girls who long to feel special and independent—the story of every high school girl ever.
After reading this novel the first time, I fell head over heels in love with it. For a long while afterwards, I had no idea there were sequels. Since Gemma *spoiler alert* defeats the bad monster and we see Pippa literally walk off with her knight in shining armor in the end, I had just assumed the story was over. Years later while I was perusing the shelves at the book store, you can imagine my great excitement at discovering two other books to the series. They’ve been on my reading list for years and I just read the first one again to fill in the gaps that I forgot before diving into Rebel Angels.
This angsty story begins in the heat of India circa 1895 and follows young Gemma Doyle. At the opening, Gemma is out walking around a market with her mother and it happens to be her sixteenth birthday. She’s also, admittedly, being a huge friggin’ brat. Gemma longs to go to London where high society reigns, but her mother keeps refusing and forces her to stay in India where the people, manners, and the weather are all harsh (in her opinion anyway). They start arguing over petty things when two gentleman bump into them—one a young man in his teens and the other a tad older. The older one apologizes and says something about someone named “Circe,” causing mother dearest to freak the freak out. After giving Gemma her necklace, mom tells her to go straight home and that they will all meet up again later. Gemma is understandably confused, and pissed that she’s going to miss her birthday tea and cake at Mrs. Talbot’s so she lashes out. She yells “I don’t care if you come home at all,” to her mother and takes off running. Not a good choice there Gemms.
Of course, she gets lost which is quite the scandal during this time period since she’s unescorted. While Gemma wanders around trying to find her way, she’s suddenly struck with a vision. Her mother is walking down the street with a dark figure following behind, but when Gemma tries to call out she’s ignored. They go into a random store and once inside, the unknown lurker pulls out a knife. She calls out again, but Gemma’s warnings go unnoticed. Shadows begin to billow out, enveloping the dark stranger before heading straight for her mom. With the unknown person’s knife, Gemma’s mom stabs herself to death before the shadows can get to her and the vision ends. Obviously this is cause for panic. Now back in reality, Gemma runs off again and finds her mother laying dead in front of the very store her vision took place.
Fast forward a couple months and we’re on a train with Gemma and her brother Tom as they travel to Spence Academy, a boarding school for girls. Thankfully the whole ordeal has greatly changed Gemma and made her significantly less annoying than she was in the first chapter. Through Gemma’s inner monologue we learn that she’s told no one about her terrifying vision because she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s a nutter. To cover up the scandalous death, the family has been saying it was Cholera that killed her mom and her father hasn’t taken it well. To help cope with his grief, dear old dad has become addicted to opium, which no one wants to acknowledge. This is high society after all. Denial is not just a river in Egypt and everyone but Gemma is perfectly happy living there.
When they finally arrive at Spence, our female lead is put in a room with Ann who is a very plain-looking scholarship student and the rest of the girls treat them as outcasts. Good times. It’s easy to tell from the beginning that Felicity and Pippa are the queen bees and that Ann longs to belong in their inner circle. Through various circumstances, all four girls are brought together and become close friends. They help Gemma discover more about her new powers and uncover amazing mysteries about Spence Academy that have been locked away for years. But everything comes at a price and the girls must learn to walk the fine line between reality and the other realms of magic.
My second time reading this was a bit different and I think my older age made me see this in another light. Don’t get me wrong, I still love it. The writing is beautiful and Libba Bray does an amazing job weaving this tale. All of the magic world building that’s mixed with historical fiction is also really fascinating to read and I really liked the juxtaposition of the two ideas. Plus, Gemma is a strong character that’s still relatable to me a decade later. She’s not perfect, but her emotions and actions were easy for me to understand and made me like her more.
Plus, the narrator was really great. She pretty much keeps one tone throughout whole novel with minimal fluctuation between characters, but Bailey has a soothing voice. Plus, something about her sound has an old world charm that adds another layer to the historical fiction aspect of this.
My one gripe with this book are the other three supporting characters Felicity, Ann, and Pippa because I can’t stand them. Gemma basically blackmails Felicity into becoming her friend while Pippa could give two shits about her—only following Felicity’s lead to be accepted. Ann doesn’t bother me quite so much except she doesn’t have a backbone (something I definitely understand if I’m being honest) and only grows one at the most inconvenient times. I’ll never understand what posses Gemma to trust these girls with her deepest darkest secret, but of course the moment she reveals her powers everyone is more willing to be her friend and all hell breaks loose. Hey, I get it. Everyone wants acceptance—especially at sixteen—and will do a lot to achieve it, but even still. Parts of the ending were a little rough for me to get through because I wanted to slap everyone. This was my face during that entire deer sacrifice scene at the end:
Overall, I really liked this book and would still recommend it to anyone curious. In the end, the drama between the girls is small in the grand scheme of things. Gemma is the character that really matters and she’s the best. Plus, it’s great to watch the plot unravel and Libba Bray did a fantastic job!