Review – ‘A Great and Terrible Beauty’ by Libba BrayMonday, January 12th, 2009
“Oh God, the great and terrible beauty of it…”
I love books. I’ve been a bookworm since I learned to read. I’ve always kept a fondness for the Young Adult fiction world. There’s something about that time in your life- 15/16- which I find so compelling. At no other time in your life are you that confident in your rightness- yet so unsure of yourself at the same time. I’ve always held to the belief that that is one of the universal truths in this world- this will still be true 100 years from now: growing up sucks. It’s confusing, it’s scary, and it’s painful. But it’s also amazing, and beautiful, and the process of self-discovery is so twisty and long that you can’t imagine an end in sight. It’s a time of firsts, of maturation, and a loss of child-like innocence. It’s a time of first friendships, first loves, first sexual encounters, and the first time you realize your mother and/or father is not perfect, is not a hero, and is in fact as human as you- and is capable of mistakes. For girls it’s about realizing that the world DOES have certain expectations for you, that it will hold your sex against you sometimes, and that boys may not be as simple as you thought and sometimes they do have hidden agendas, and other times they don’t. And yes, it’s impossible to tell which is which sometimes.
“A Great and Terrible Beauty” by Libba Bray is about this and so much more. And it’s got corsets. And magic powers.
The book starts out in Bombay in 1899. Gemma, an English girl of some money is with her mother strolling through the marketplace getting together a nice meal to celebrate her 16th birthday. Gemma’s mad because her mother won’t let her go to London to enjoy ‘the season’ (society parties and teas and the like- where one was like to find a husband) and her mother won’t giver her a straight answer why. They fight and harsh words are exchanged and suddenly Gemma is struck with a vision of her mother horribly being attacked and killed. Before she has a chance to react and understand what happened- her mother is dead and her life and innocence is gone forever.
Gemma finds herself in dreary England being shipped off to Spence Academy for girls. (Her family insisting on hushing up her mother’s death as “cholera”) Rigid, cold, and conformist Spence Academy prides itself on churning out thoughtless, mindless, pretty girls of some talents to amuse men, make fine marriages, and produce babies. (‘Lay back and think of England!”) At this school she befriends her roommate, Anne, who is the school’s scholarship student and only there to learn enough to one day become a governess to distant cousins that resent her existence and only want her for an unpaid servant. No one likes her, and she is a doughy mousey girl with zero confidence and a secret cutting habit.
She also befriends, Pippa and Felicity- two of the most popular girls in school. Pippa is beautiful but silly; hopelessly romantic she detests the ugly, old, and un-charming (but rich) suitors that only want her as an arm decoration. She longs for true love like in the stories and refuses to accept that that might not be a reality.
Felicity is the super confident daughter of a famous Admiral and is smart, conniving, and always with a hidden agenda. She feels powerless and desperately craves the rule over her own life and is hiding things from everyone.
They find an old diary that describes an ancient Order of women who used to run around the woods of the school and practice ancient magic and rule the realms. The diary is that of Mary Dowd and they read aloud her story of her and her best friend being initiated into this secret society, finding the sheer glee of the first taste of power, their joyous friendship… and how it all comes tumbling down. Not just them but the whole Order itself.
“I don’t yet know what power feels like. But this is surely what it looks like, and I think I’m beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and teachers and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It’s not that they want to protect us; it’s that they fear us.”
What intrigues me is how our four main characters are all trapped in different ways. Anne- the most obvious- trapped by her poverty, her doughy looks, and her lack of family connections. Pippa, by her beauty, which only makes her a commodity her parents can sell to the highest bidder (and in a twist she has epilepsy. Something that if got out could ruin her chances of ever marrying due to the time period of thinking any malady to be a horrible weakness). Felicity, the daughter of a famous Admiral and a mother who all but left her is trapped by her circumstances as well. Gemma, trapped by her secrets. Her mother’s death, her burgeoning magical powers, and a complete lack of self-knowledge- the epic ‘who the hell am I?” problem.
What comes to pass is Gemma discovering and revealing her power… and the ability she has to enter ‘the realms.’ The Realms are the place between life and death, they are where you sometimes go when you dream and are the source of all magic in this world. When The Order ruled over it, it was a place of peace and posterity (although that depends on who’s telling the story) and their job was to help spirits cross over the river into the afterlife. Spirits who do not cross over end up… corrupted and forever banished to The Winterlands. Gemma and the girls find themselves in a beautiful garden where anything they wish to happen happens. Pippa gets a handsome knight to fawn over her, Anne gets great beauty, Felicity learns archery and how to achieve power and Gemma starts her self-discovery of who she is with the ghost of her mother who is tethered to this world because of the evil that killed her.
This book is not only a great story full of twists, turns, magic, intrigue, romance, and suspense- but it is also an amazing historical representation of women’s roles, views, and wants in the Victorian Era on the verge of the new century. The feminist movement did not happen in one epiphany moment. Betty Friedan was not the first person to realize ‘woman can not live on mop-glo alone.’ Miss Moore, the new art teacher at the school represents the free spirited young single teacher who isn’t afraid to tell the girls it’s okay to think, it’s okay to have opinions, and that you have as much a right as anyone else to voice them.
And these girls want for it so much that it aches. They want power, they want love, and they want… freedom. Some things don’t change. What teenager now doesn’t want for the same things?
But conflict seeps in. Circe, the evil sorceress wants the realms and all the magic and power for herself. She killed Gemma’s mother to do it so now she’ll kill Gemma for it. I will say in the first book Circe is a little weak and seems more far away than she should be but- no spoilers- it is made up for in the second book.
Romance comes into the fold in the form of Kartik, a handsome young Indian boy who Gemma is inexplicably connected to. With racism the societal norm of the day Gemma has a hard time reconciling her attraction to a non-white boy in a way that does not feel cheap or unreal. A big pet peeve of mine in historical fiction is when characters in the olden times ‘happen to have’ modern 21st century western morals and beliefs. Raised in India, surrounded by Indians she just can’t bring herself to be racist to him, but she fully knows that her world (and his for that matter) would never ever find their relationship acceptable. This, of course, only makes her begrudgingly want him more- especially when she starts dreaming of… ya know-ing with him.
Kartik is a member of the Rakshana, a different secret society composed of powerful men who wish to take the power of the realms for themselves and wants Gemma to suppress her powers and become a pawn of the Rakshana. Kartik’s agenda is complex, he wants Gemma but at the same time fears her power, and has a duty to his order and his brother who died trying to save Gemma’s mother.
This book is so worthwhile. The whole series “Rebel Angels” and “The Sweet Far Thing” is a true saga that will have you on the edge of your seat. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry- oh, you’ll beg for more. This is, in my opinion, one of the best Young Adult books written in the last ten years, and certainly one of the best paranormal ones for me.
In the end, the whole book relates to the famous poem at the beginning of the novel, The Lady of Shallot by Tennyson.
“And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her away,
The Lady of Shallot”
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