Two months after her mother's sudden and puzzling suicide, Gemma Doyle travels from India, where she was raised, to England for her new life at an all-girls preparatory school. At Spence Academy, Gemma feels dispirited by the stringent etiquette and her classmates' cruel pecking order, but she finds herself befriended by a group of girls with aspirations of being more than "proper ladies." Aside from school troubles, Gemma is also preoccupied with nightmarish visions, and following her discovery of a long-lost diary that describes "the Order," she learns that she has supernatural abilities that link her to the spirit world, her mother, and an evil force that wants to usurp Gemma's powers. And it's almost too late before Gemma realizes that she holds the key to her own and her friends' destinies.
So, I've wanted to read this series for quite a while, for two main reasons. One, it's by Libba Bray, and I absolutely loved Going Bovine. And two, it came highly recommended (Okay, so that was mainly Michelle, but there WERE a lot of other people who said they'd read and loved it). Having finished it, I'll just say I'm glad I own the next two books. Although I am somewhat apprehensive, because I know, er, certain things that happen in the last one.
But back to A Great and Terrible Beauty.
Something I've seen in a lot of reviews of this, something that crops up as a main complaint in many, is that the girls are petty, that their "friendship" is laughable. This makes me scratch my head a bit, because . . . isn't that the whole point?
They are sixteen and seventeen year old girls. They are not saints. They are impulsive and rebellious and curious and cruel. They formed friendships based off need and secrets, and slowly, over time, grew to see more than just secrets binding them together, grew to have some compassion for one another. But no one fools themselves into thinking they are the best of friends. Their relationships, formed and kept alive by shared secrets, are tenuous at best, and easily broken. Libba Bray was not trying to make them out as ideal companions for one another. She was not trying to make them perfect.
And I, personally, loved the characters. I loved that, though they were deeply flawed, they each had those moments where they shone, where you wanted to reach through the book and give them a hug or just laugh alongside them. The four girls, the others at Spence, Ms. Nightwing, Brigid, Tom, Mother Elena, Miss Moore, Gemma's mother--every character in this novel was a real person, with lives and pasts and feelings and flaws and everything that makes us human. They brought this novel to life.
But it wasn't just the characters. It was the writing. Libba Bray's writing . . . is fantastic. It is completely and utterly fantastic. It is not one that is gorgeous in the way of Laini Taylor's or Maggie Stiefvater's, not one that makes readers ooh and ahh over every paragraph. But what is so brilliant about it is that Libba Bray can paint a picture. More than that, Libba Bray can paint a world, and then she can add a dash of detail here, another there, until it is no longer a painting but a moving thing before you and you can hear every word that is spoken (accent and all), see every little action as it is described, every room and every tree and every creature. Her talent for pulling me into this world was honestly incredible.
Perhaps my favorite thing about A Great and Terrible Beauty was the main theme it explored, that of power and what it can do to you and how it can be dealt with. Quite simple, it explores the great and terrible beauty of it. How power can be so marvelous and so hideous, beautiful and awful, great and terrible. I loved seeing how these girls dealt with it, how it changed them.
You're probably wondering at this point why I gave it four stars after all this gushing. Well, I'll try to summarize my main reasons for docking a star in this paragraph. For one, I was still a bit too confused at the end of this book. I do realize there are two other (rather large) books in this trilogy and that there were probably be quite a bit more elaborating in them, but by the end of this I was still a little bit puzzled regarding the realms and the Order and, most of all, the Rakshana. I feel like I know almost nothing about them. I'm sure these will be explored more, but I wish we'd gotten a bit more in this book. And for another . . . I'm not quite sure how to express this properly. It seemed like there would be these jumps from one scene to another and I would have no idea how the one character had managed to get where they are now and how much time had passed and it left me a little bit disoriented. I just wish those gaps had been bridged a little more smoothly.
Minor complaints aside, A Great and Terrible Beauty was a really excellent read. Onto Rebel Angels!