A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

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Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty

Author: Libba Bray

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Feeling: Longing

★★★★★

This is the first book I have read by Libba Bray who is, in fact, quite the prolific author and incredibly popular amongst fans of Young Adult literature. My interest was peaked in Bray’s writing after reading an article she had written here for EW that Monica from SheMightBeMonica shared online. Upon reading Bray’s article I immediately ordered both A Great and Terrible Beauty and Beauty Queens by the author. Seeing her discuss the influences and objectives of her young adult work made me see them in a much more complex light than perhaps the blurbs alone would have. Not only did my first foray into her work not disappoint, it far exceeded all of my expectations. A Great and Terrible Beauty is the first in her Gemma Doyle series and what a beginning it is.

The year is 1895 and our story follows Gemma Doyle, a young woman from a wealthy English family who has spent her entire life thus far growing up in India. After tragedy strikes, however, her life is uprooted and she is sent to board at a girls’ finishing school in England. Her life in England is far more than elocution lessons and keeping up with this season’s latest fashions; Miss Doyle is haunted by visions of another world, one both terrifying and beautiful.

This book melds together 19th century Britain, female friendships, sexual awakenings and magic. The story and characters are engaging and mysterious with so much more bubbling under the surface. There is so much I enjoyed about this first book in the series that it is difficult to condense my feelings for you in one blog post, but here I go.

For one, the characters are complex; each has their good and their bad qualities, their virtues and their vices. Those of Gemma’s fellow students who may initially seem like your cliche mean girls upon her arrival in England, gradually have their layers peeled back and their persons exposed. These are young women struggling with the confines of their time and station, dreaming of lives where they can make choices of their own rather than to suit the demands of their families and society.

The book embodies a sense of longing throughout; a longing to know oneself and a  longing to belong, to be accepted whilst clambering to stand out. Not forgetting a carnal longing, which is far more unfamiliar to these once girls who find themselves becoming young women. To explore themselves truly, however, is made all the more difficult by the restrictive confines of their contemporary society where women’s roles are constructed in order to serve the male elite. In these circumstances who would not find the call of a magical order made up entirely of women seductive?

Bray’s book shines a light on the individuality of women in a time when they were allowed very little. She allows them freedom in this and other worlds to explore themselves and their desires. At the same time, they may want to tread cautiously whilst they discover their own boundaries and challenge those that have been imposed upon them.

Dare I describe this as the historical feminist fantasy novel that I never knew I always wanted? Bring on book two.

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