Book Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray

I picked this book up after seeing it recommended by Lauren DeStefano, who is a great person to follow just in general because she’s funny and posts lots of cat pictures, but also for her book recommendations—this isn’t the first thing I’ve read solely because she recommended it, and thus far I have to say her recommendations have been spot on. I have yet to be disappointed. While this book was published almost ten years ago, so it’s not exactly new and hot, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading, and the plus side of picking it up this long after publication is that I don’t have to wait impatiently for the sequel.

The narrative opens in Colonial India with the violent death of the narrator’s mother, an event which leads to her being packed off to England for boarding school so she can become a neatly polished young lady, packaged and ready for marriage. Finally, she gets her dream of going to England, but it’s not what she expected, and it turns out that her mother isn’t quite who she expected either. Gemma Doyle enters a murky world of magic, other worlds, and the tensions of female friendships, and struggles to find her footing while she adjusts to a world without her mother.

This could easily turn into a very cliched book. It has all the makings of one what with the whole family-tragedy-in-India-and-then-sent-to-boarding-school-plus-mean-girls thing, but Bray manages to take what would be very troped elements and do fun things with them, which is an illustration that even tropes can find new uses, and a skilled author can create something fascinating with existing tools in addition to new ones. A Great and Terrible Beauty is compellingly told, the kind of book you find yourself urgently needing to keep reading because you want to know what happens next, and it’s a story that, in the telling, has some fascinating embedded things beyond the story itself.

Gemma is a bit of an outsider, unfamiliar with much of the culture of the school around her, and she struggles to fit. Despite that, though, she’s good at reading the popular girls and figuring out how to work them, avoiding total outsider status and worming her way into their social group. It helps that she has some blackmail material as well, of course, since that gives her leverage in a world where the primary role of girls and women is as pawns and playthings intended as wives for rich old men, not as individuals.

A Great and Terrible Beauty definitely has Gothic elements going for it; it’s atmospheric and dark and tangled. It’s also a great commentary on the roles of women and how they were forced to make terrible choices to stay alive during this period and history (and still are today). Most of the characters fully know and understand their projected roles in their world, and they’re also bitterly unhappy about them. They don’t want to be what the people around them want to force them to become, and some are willing to go to great lengths to avoid the inevitable, whether it be marriage to save the family fortune or a career in service because you’re not wealthy and don’t carry an enticing title.

Ann, the girl who dreams of something better, is a particularly tragic figure in many ways because her schoolgirl fantasies seem all the more acute when you consider her likely future. She wants desperately to be someone else, and dreams of nothing more than being taken away from the inevitable. As she reads melodramatic books about girls just like her swept away to a life of leisure, she entertains dreams that life will turn out differently from her, that she will transcend her status as a scholarship student and find something better…but she still envisions marriage as the path to freedom.

Women fought against very real confines like these in the era the book is set in, and they struggled with the same choices made by the characters. Unlike Gemma and her friends, thought, they didn’t have the option of retreating to a magical world to ease their stress and fear, and they couldn’t carry magic back into the world with them to change the way it behaved, but Bray did illustrate what powerless people can do with power when they’re presented with it: abuse it. They use the magic they find for frivolous purposes even though it comes with great cost, and ultimately the lure of power becomes too much for one of the girls.

What happens when you spend your entire life being crammed into a box and told how to be? When your whole existence is reduced to a very narrow band of value, and you’re repeatedly told you need to learn to be a certain kind of person or you’re useless? When you’re not even sure what kind of person you want to be, but this is the option you’re given, to become a nice well-trained wife or die? When you’re presented with the potential for tremendous power and the chance to totally change your world, what would you do?

The girls of A Great and Terrible Beauty explore this with immense consequences, in a book that manages to be mysterious, thrilling, fantastical, and original all at once. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series, and I’m so very grateful I don’t have to wait a year for the next one; this whole ‘finding books years after they were published’ thing might actually have some merit.