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A Great and Terrible Beauty
By Libba Bray

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A Great and Terrible Beauty

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A Great and Terrible Beauty
By Libba Bray
Thorndike Press, Large Print: (2004)
ISBN: 0-7862-6504-3
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction, Young Adult

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - August 4, 2004

Part mystery, part mystical coming-of-age story, A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray, is a riveting story about a young outcast. As the story opens, the year is 1895 and British born Gemma Doyle, has just turned sixteen. Raised in India, Gemma wants to go back to England to attend the teas and balls that her grandmother tempts her within every letter. Too soon, Gemma gets her wish. Her mother is murdered in unusual circumstances and she is quickly sent back to England. To avoid any hint of scandal, she is admonished to say that her mother died of Cholera.

Upon her return to England, Gemma is sent to the Spence Academy to learn the womanly arts, including deportment, French, dancing, and drawing. With these skills and a modicum of good looks, Gemma is sure to make a good match. Supposing of course, that she learns to mind her manners, hold her tongue, and to behave in a sedate and reserved manner. Gemma tries to behave as a young lady should, but it is simply not in her nature. She is strong willed and independent, and terribly lonely. In addition, she is troubled by prophetic visions that she does not understand and cannot control. Worse, she soon discovers that she was followed to England by Kartik, a member of the Rakshana Brotherhood. He warns her to fight the visions, as they will lead her to dangers that threaten not only her, but the world as a whole.

In the Spence Academy, Bray has created a vivid portrait of a Victorian lady's finishing / boarding school. From Mrs. Nightwing, the harsh headmistress to the lovelorn French teacher, the school is staffed by an eccentric assortment of teachers and servants. As important, Bray clearly illustrates the importance that the Victorians placed upon having a pristine family history, as well as social standing. Into this stratified environment, Gemma finds herself on the outs of the school's social elite. A fact that is fortified when she befriends Ann Bradshaw, an orphan and scholarship student at the school.

Struggling to come to terms with her mother's death, the power she seems to have to foretell the future, and the intricacies of school life, Gemma finds it difficult maintain the expected lady like demeanor that is required by Victorian society. Despite these difficulties, Gemma manages to overcome the social and cultural obstacles that place her at odds with her fellow schoolmates and soon develops a strong bond with three of the girls as they become embroiled with a mysterious force that gives them the ability to change reality. Each of the four girls is damaged in some way, and unhappy with her life, and the power that comes into their grasp is both terrifying and not without risk to the user, and those around them.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is a captivating novel that is written in the first person. Bray has interwoven Gemma's coming-of-age story with a unique, multi-part mystery that includes supernatural forces vying for power, murder, a secret diary, dark family secrets, and a mysterious group called the Order. This story contains some violence and sexual content that may make it unsuitable for some readers. There are also some elements of an emerging love story here, as well as a telling exposť on the lot of 'respectable' girls in Victorian England. They have two options, to become a wife and mother, or should they fail to secure a successful marriage - to serve a governess or teacher. For Gemma and her friends, however, a third option might exist for them to choose from, but is it worth the risk?

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