Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray: My Review

A Great and Terrible Beauty (The Gemma Doyle Trilogy)
A Great and Terrible Beauty (The Gemma Doyle Trilogy)

Blurb on 
A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy--jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel. 
Sixteen-year-old Gemma 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. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls' academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions "for a bit of fun" and 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 the "others" and rebuild the Order. A Great and Terrible Beauty is an impressive first book in what should prove to be a fascinating trilogy.

Warning: This will not be a fair review. 

Why? Because I fell in love with Libba Bray's writing before I bought her book, so I knew already it was going to be a guilty pleasure.

I happened upon Libba Bray while I was surveying quotes on

Quotes like:
"But aren't many gardens beautiful because they are imperfect? ...Aren't the strange, new flowers that arise by mistake or misadventure as pleasing as the well-tended and planned?" 
 Libba Bray (The Sweet Far Thing)
"I do not want to pass the time. I want to grab hold of it and leave my mark upon the world." 
 Libba Bray (The Sweet Far Thing)
"There is a time in every life when paths are chosen, character is forged. I could have chosen a different path. But I didn’t. I failed myself." 
 Libba Bray (The Sweet Far Thing) 
 and my favorite,
"What Hamlet suffers from is a lack of zombies. Let us say Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show up—Ho-HO! Now you’ve got something that stirs the, um, something that stirs things that are stirrable. BOOM! A pack of ravenous flesh-eaters breaks open their heads and sucks out their eyeballs. No need for iambic pentameter because they are grunting, groaning annihilators of humanity with no time for meter. You’re not asleep in the back of English class anymore, are you? This is what I’m talking about. Zombies. Learn it, live it, love it." 
 Libba Bray

So when I stumbled upon A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY in T.J. Maxx's YA paperback section, I should have recognized the author right away, but I didn't. I even did my open-to-a-random-page-and-see-if-I-connect-to-the-writing thing before I bought it. I opened to a part where a maid is telling a creepy story to a couple of schoolgirls, and the writing was so compelling, I wanted to read on.

It wasn't until later that I made the connection between the Libba Bray on the cover and the quotes I'd enjoyed on goodreads. And then I moved the book up on my to-be-read pile because I couldn't wait to get more of that brilliance.

See, some people are storytellers and others are writers. Libba Bray is both, but first and foremost, she is a writer. And the way she spins words into elaborate and smooth silk is awe-inspiring. I didn't read A Great and Terrible Beauty. I drank it.  

Since I am a Christian, I am wary of books that make religion sound like whitewashed conformity, because I don't see it that way at all. Nothing whitewashed about the Bible, is there? In fact, the dark and light themes woven into every book in the Gemma Doyle series are also alive and well in Christianity. Since the author acknowledges those themes, I must deduce she doesn't mean her books to be anti-religion. It's all a part of the character's past and circumstance. For instance, most women relate to the ever-present discomfort of expectations Gemma Doyle is dealing with in a Victorian society complete with suitors with names like Bartelby Bumble and stuffy older brothers who expect you to be well-behaved at all times. I think the anti-religion overtones are necessary to the character of Gemma Doyle because she's in that discover-who-you-really-are phase of life in a very repressive circumstance, and it's natural she should rebel. It's also natural that she should compare the magic she's experiencing to the religion she's been raised with (or hasn't been raised with, in this case). So I didn't find that it detracted from the story at all, but should spur some interesting conversations between mothers and daughters who read these books together.

The suspense is delicious. I found my writer self taking mental notes about how she achieves it in some places. For instance, at the climax when they're running from danger, she has the characters call out for their friend, rather than simply stating that they couldn't find her. The cries of, "Where's Pippa?" interspersed with the action of fleeing a monster definitely amped up my heart rate. And even though the romantic interest is rarely present (or maybe because of that), the romantic suspense is delicious, as well.

FIVE STARS. I enjoyed reading A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY and look forward to the next in the series, though the resolution at the end of the book was good enough that I don't actually feel like I have to read the sequel right now. Kind of nice, actually, after the cliff-hangers of THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. :)

Next up, THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak.

What are you reading? Does it make you think? Does it make you feel?

It's Kelly's day on Operation Awesome, so be sure to stop by and share your writerly achievements of 2010.

And don't forget to sign up for the New Year's Revisions Blog Party set for January first of 2011!

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