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Monday, January 17, 2011

A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray

The first book in the Gemma Doyle series by Libba Bray is A Great and Terrible Beauty.

Sixteen-year old Gemma Doyle wants nothing more than to go to London and escape hot, dusty, India in 1895. However, after a mysterious vision in which she witnesses her mother’s suicide and is whisked out of the country by her father to avoid scandal, she couldn’t be more miserable in England. Her grandmother sends her to a boarding school called Spence Academy, in hopes of “taming” her. There, Gemma is an outcast, preyed upon by popular girls Pippa and Felicity, and making only one half-friend, Ann, another outcast, because she is poor. So yes, very depressing. Right. Is there a point to this book? Yes. Well, Gemma continues to have visions like the one she had back in India. Creepy omens of death and charming things like that. She finds Kartik, an Indian boy who warms her cryptically to guard her mind against the visions-the “realms” he calls them. And one creepy night, a ghost like child leads Gemma to a cave where an old diary is hidden, about a girl like Gemma, who has visions too. Gemma continues to miss her mother and her father, who, she infers from letters, is succumbing to grief and laudanum. One day, though, changes that. Miss Moore, the art teacher, takes the girls on an unexpected trip into the woods bordering Spence. She tells them about a mystical Order who lives in another world, called the realms. She shows them primitive cave art.

Most of the girls gasp and act horrified, but Gemma is intrigued, because one of the paintings depicts a crescent eye, just like the one on a necklace her mother gave her before she died. On the way back, she catches the mean girl, Felicity, kissing a gypsy in the woods. She agrees not to tell; however, Felicity becomes her "friend" and decides that she, Pippa, and Gemma, should have their own "Order". Through midnight meetings, secrets, and a bit of whiskey stolen from the kitchens, the four girls' friendships take root and bloom. Gemma continues to read the diary from the book and discovers something magical and amazing--a dark and dangerous world, full of secrets Gemma maybe is better off not knowing.

This is a really deep book and very dark, so it may be hard for some people to read. But it sends a very good message and it really makes you think about what is right and what you would have done in her situation.  Libba Bray has a really poetic style of writing, and her style works to create a haunted mood. The characters seem real because they have a lot of flaws.  They come across as real people because they do have their strengths and their weaknesses.  The book says a lot about how the girls are trying to break out of the system of becoming housewives and fulfilling the expectations of a man's world.

This is the first in a trilogy, and all three are really good--read them under the covers with a flashlight kind of books. I rate this book 4 out of 5 chocolate bars.  This first book is rated vampire appropriate for middle and high school students, but the later books in the series are probably death-rated for language, sexuality, and disturbing themes.

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