A Great and Terrible Beauty (Book #1)
Sixteen year old Gemma Doyle 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. Then she’s sent back to England and enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy where her mother also went to school. This Victorian boarding school has a mysterious burned-out East Wing and a clique of gossipy girls, including the powerful Felicity and beautiful Pippa, both of whom snub Gemma when she first arrives — until she blackmails herself and her scholarship roommate Ann into the clique. To make matters worse, Gemma continues to have visions of tragic things that come true, and she can’t control them, and Kartik, a teenage Indian boy warns Gemma to fight off the visions she keeps having. The visions continue, however, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order, an ancient group of women who maintained the realms and regulated their power, and how two students unleashed an evil creature from the realms by killing a Gypsy girl.
Gemma has the magical abilities of this Order — she and she alone can open the realms where magical powers can make anything happen and where her mother waits to instruct her. She allows Ann, Pippa, and Felicity to come with her into the other-world realms of her visions 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 others with the same power and rebuild the Order.
I picked up A Great and Terrible Beauty on a whim because it seemed interesting and different — a Young Adult novel, part historical fiction (it takes place in Victorian England), part fantasy (the magical realms), and part horror (Gemma’s mother is killed in the first chapter and something equally bad is after Gemma). My curiosity was definitely rewarded. A Great and Terrible Beauty is one of the most beautiful historical and gothic novels I have ever read. Libba Bray is a gifted and talented writer, and her descriptive prose kept me enthralled from beginning to end, despite the fact that this is not an action-packed story. In fact, it is often slow-moving with not much action.
A Great and Terrible Beauty contains so many elements and layers that make the novel compelling and engrossing. The backdrop of Victorian England and the way women were viewed and what was expected from them in those times is portrayed perfectly, and the characters are both flawed and complex which makes them sympathetic and likable despite their faults. Gemma, especially, is a great heroine. She has the sort of confusions and issues that modern girls can relate to and her first person narrative voice has a unique naïveté which is brilliantly written.
The first book in a trilogy, A Great and Terrible Beauty will not disappoint fans of beautiful writing, gothic fantasy, and magical realism.
Rebel Angels (Book #2)
In this sequel to the Victorian gothic fantasy A Great and Terrible Beauty, sixteen year old Gemma Doyle continues to pursue her role as the one destined to bind the magic of the Realms and restore it to the Order--a mysterious group of women who have been overthrown by a rebellion. She is determined to find and destroy Circe, but first she must find the Temple and bind the magic she released into the realms when she destroyed the runes. Gemma uses her magical powers to transport herself and her two close friends from Spence Academy, Felicity and Ann, to the Realms, where they search for the lost Temple, the key to Gemma's mission, and comfort Pippa, their friend who has died and been left behind in the Realms and who may or may not be corrupted.
Meanwhile, a mysterious new teacher may actually be Circe, and Gemma is torn between her attraction to Kartik, the teenage guy from India who followed her to England and whose mission is actually to make sure she gives the power of the Order to his magical order – the Rakshana, and the handsome but clueless Simon Middleton, a young man of good family who is courting her. The complicated plot thickens when Gemma discovers a woman in Bedlam madhouse who knows where to find the Temple, and her father's addiction to laudanum lands him in an opium den.
Like A Great and Terrible Beauty, this is a remarkable dark young adult fantasy steeped in Victorian sensibility - as the girls fight to bind the magic and hopefully work toward destroying Circe, they are also seduced by London society and the temptation to be proper young ladies who will grow into proper young Victorian wives. Gemma, Ann, and Felicity are perfectly written as complex young women in a world poised for change, uncertain of their places. All the characters have so many layers which are revealed even more in Rebel Angels than in the last novel, especially in regards to Felicity and Ann. Readers can see just how much Ann desires to be a proper, upper-crust young lady, and Felicity has multiple motivations fueling her desires to obtain her own magical powers. In Rebel Angels as well as A Great and Terrible Beauty, I often found myself wondering if Felicity, Pippa, and Ann would be Gemma's friends if it weren’t for the realms, which adds a certain depth to the story that most young adult novels lack.
In many ways, this novel surpasses the first. The descriptive and lyrical writing never falters, and the many revelations and twists in the plot only strengthen the characters. Libba Bray is a master of clever foreshadowing, and though she leaves clues to the mystery of Circe, many times I thought I had it all figured out and was still caught by surprise. Bray tightens up the loose ends left in the previous book but leaves new story possibilities for the third and final installment (The Sweet Far Thing).
The Sweet Far Thing (Book #3)
After binding the magic to herself at the end of Rebel Angels, Gemma Doyle returns to Spence - Gemma and Felicity prepare to enter society while Ann gets ready to become a governess. All the while, they are trying to figure out what to do about their oh-so-scripted futures, not to mention troubles with family members – Gemma’s father is still addicted to Laudanum and her brother is still hopelessly hooked on trying to become important in society. Gemma worries over her feelings for Kartik as she tries to make sense of events in the Realms and the warnings she is receiving in visions.
I spent the first three quarters of this book tense, waiting, and at some moments annoyed. I wanted to yell at Gemma - about trusting all the wrong people, misusing the magic she holds, and missing all the clues to figuring out what to do. Gemma does all three, for hundreds of pages. I understand it – to a point. One of the strengths of Gemma’s character and the story is that she has been given far too great a responsibility, and it's hard for a 17-year-old girl to know what to do when everyone around her is clamoring for the power she has. And she has to learn to trust in herself and figure out what is right and good rather than what is easy.
But the book is over 800 pages long, and to be honest, sometimes it felt like it. Though the writing is good, the plot dragged at times, and I often found myself tempted to skim to get to the good parts. And most importantly, it took Gemma far too long to untangle the webs of deceit and figure it out - there are several interesting twists, including three people in the realms who are not as dead as they should be, yet I figured them all out much earlier than Gemma and therefore was not surprised.
Despite its problems, there are some moments of sheer brilliance. One particularly amazing moment for me was when Gemma and her friends stand at the gate of the Winterlands and in order to enter, they must answer the gate’s demand – to know each girl's greatest fear and greatest wish. Gemma's answer: "I don't know! I don't know what I want, but I wish I did. And that is the truest answer I can give" sums up her greatest inner struggle throughout the course of all three books.
The ending is bittersweet for Gemma and I’ve seen numerous reviews where many readers have a difficult time with this. I can understand the sentiment, but it would be far too unrealistic for Bray’s dark and gothic world to have a fairytale ending.
Though the story is too long and not as clearly plotted as her first two books, much of what makes Libba Bray’s writing appealing is still present in The Sweet Far Thing (the prose has some enchantingly beautiful metaphors). The series as a whole was a very enjoyable read, though the second book, Rebel Angels, was clearly the best.