Gemma Doyle is different from the other girls at Spence Academy in London, England. Gemma is outspoken, brave and does not follow the typical Victorian etiquette required of women of her class. Gemma also carries with her a dark secret about the death of her mother, and strange powers of the supernatual that become more prevalent in her life after her 16th birthday. After witnessing to her mother’s self-inflicted death via a mysterious illusion while living in Bombay India, Gemma’s family relocates to their hometown of London, where Gemma attends Spence boarding school for girls of elite families. Gemma brings with her not only a deadly secret, but also a mysterious follower, warning Gemma to stay away from her illusions. Carrying the secret of her mother’s death, and mystical powers that are unexplained, Gemma slowly makes friends with the most powerful and popular girls in the school, introducing them into a world of magic, history and the supernatural. As their lives begin to form a new path with each other, so does the path of Gemma’s abilities to summon other realms and learn about her mother’s connection to an occult society called The Order and finally realize her true destiny.
At first, this book started out like a typical teen book, in fact it reminded me heavily of the movie, The Craft (anyone remember that movie?). The plots are incredibly similar, minus the time period. While the story line is not the most original mystic tale, Bray’s writing ability is wonderful and genuine. She does a good job of keeping in step with the Victorian era through dialogue, ideologies and nuances of the characters. The story finally took on its one feel towards the later half when the history behind the Order started to be explained. I felt that for a moment, boarding schools in Victorian England could be more privy to occult happenings than anything contemporary. There is something intangible about the Victorian period that lends itself easily to these types of gothic novels, and Bray does a good job of harnessing this resource. The characters are well drawn out, and even the supporting cast are just as colorful and interesting as the main four girls. Each of the four girls has her own identity, but are tied together through a common theme in their families, being damaged in some way be it emotional, mental of physical.
While Gemma is the star of the show, I thought Felicity stole each scene with her zeal, her aura and her ability to be snide and caring, like a rose with sharp thorns. I would have liked to learn more about Ann, the scholorship student sent to the school to be a governess, unable to rise from her low ranks in Victorian society. Although Ann had a strong role in the beginning of the novel, her character faded away throughout the rest of the book. The book is part of a reader’s circle, so there are some interesting discussion questions as well as an interview with the author at the end of the book. This book is the first of a series following Gemma Doyle’s experiences at Spence Academy.
I would suggest this book for teen girls age 16 and up, there is a lot to take in, the supernatural and plenty of sexual innuendos and a few fairly subtle erotic scenes. Its a great Victorian-gothic novel that I think even adults will enjoy.A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray Delacorte Press, 2003 ISBN 0385732314 403 pages