Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
My Rating: ★★★
The year is 1895. After witnessing the suicide of her mother and being smothered by cryptic visions, sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle was transported from India to Spence, an all-girls academy where she receives a chilly reception. Her terror-meter didn’t drop even a single notch however; the visions kept their claws on her, and there’s a mysterious Indian boy following her around. These things refuse to be pushed into the backburner even as she adapts to the world that will supposedly prepare her as a lady worthy of acceptance into the society. She juggles these two worlds, trying to understand both—making friends, unveiling secrets, treading the ground where the society’s leash leads her. When Gemma and her pseudo-rebellious clique find a way to eschew their plights regarding their freedom, they make an irrevocable choice. Is the freedom they opt for worthy of the consequences they have to face?
Before picking up A Great and Terrible Beauty, the fact that Libba Bray is a force to reckon with is already embedded in my head. I vowed to read more from her after I turned the last pages of Going Bovine. Picking up the first book in the Gemma Doyle trilogy seems to be the next best move, since the series has quite a huge following both on- and offline. The premise sounds promising too: a coming-of-age, Victorian gothic treat with rebellious femmes in the forefront. However, what I got after opening the package is totally different from what I expected. (Hint: it’s a mix of good and bad news.)
I’m going out on a limb here: for me, Gemma isn’t much of a likable character. Save for the vague visions, she’s akin to any ordinary teenage girl—naïve, stubborn, and prone to throes of angst-ridden musings. Having read a lot of YA books, I remember liking narrators with the same qualities. There is just something about her that I couldn’t quite grasp, like she filled the ‘character container’ only to a quarter. Half-baked is the right word, as she hasn’t reached the three-dimensional stage yet. “That’s why the sequels exist,” one might tell me. But doesn’t that only prove the first book fails in being the foundation-setter of the whole trilogy?
Theme-wise, I commend Bray for tackling the issue of refusing to be pigeonholed in the era the novel is set in. Women here are groomed to be perfect housewives for rich men; they are “programmed” to take the submissive role. Bray’s clique of girls shakes off the leash. They don’t want to be treated like wind-up dolls whose value lies only in how good their male partners would look with them hanging off their arms. I like how Bray explored the topic, how her heroines find a new option when they came to know what the other Realms are and what can happen inside, and how they deal with the consequences of their actions.
I also love how the theme of the famous Spider-Man line, “With great power comes great responsibility,” plays a big role in the story. It’s nothing new even with all the supernatural thingamajigs, but I guess reading it in a YA noir lit is a breath of fresh air.
Aside from those—and I will not lie—a big chunk of the novel seems a bit underwhelming for me. The whole thing is chock-full of tropes, which I have no problem about if they’re toyed with unconventionally to come up with something new. I enjoyed the atmospheric prose (I’m a big fan of world-building) and some o f the witty banters, but I find myself constantly checking the page numbers and wondering when I will finish the book. The second part was peppered with more action, mystery, and twists, but nothing happens that I couldn’t have seen coming toward me in a fog.
I also would have liked it better if Bray chose not to execute elements of her “fusion cooking.” I understand that women will always be women and feelings are timeless, but I’d rather hear them talk like real girls in early 1890s than characters in some kind of a Mean Girls parody.
But don’t get me wrong—I don’t think this book is bad, I think it is just not for me. As of now I have no plans of reading the sequels, but hey, I have a fickle brain. If my curiosity gets the better of me, I might pick up Rebel Angels and A Sweet Far Thing in the future.
Photo by Simone Becque