All Gemma Doyle wants for her sixteenth birthday is to go to England and to see London. Though she comes from respectable English stock, Gemma has never seen the country raised instead in India where it is too hot, too dusty and entirely too boring.
Gemma does get her wish, but not the way she had hoped. Instead of a glamorous return to England with her family, Gemma is sent to an austere finishing school after her mother’s tragic death under mysterious circumstances.
Spence Academy is meant to take Gemma and the other young students and make them into ladies ready for their first Season and, more importantly, ready to become respectable wives and make good matches for their families.
But Gemma has no desire to be finished if it means never knowing what really happened to her mother or, for that matter, what’s really happening to her.
Much as she tries, Gemma isn’t like the other girls at Spence. She has her own wants that go beyond a respectable husband and a quiet life as someone’s wife. She has her own thoughts. And she sees things; things she shouldn’t be able to see, places that shouldn’t exist.
A mysterious man has followed Gemma to Spence from India telling her she must stop the visions and close her mind to her powers. But her powers are also the only way to make sense of her mother’s death. A world of magic lies at Gemma’s feet, its great and terrible beauty there for the taking. But only if Gemma is ready to choose it in A Great and Terrible Beauty (2003) by Libba Bray.
A Great and Terrible Beauty is the first book in The Gemma Doyle Trilogy.
Set in 1895, this book is a satisfying blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Gemma is very thoroughly grounded in the daily life of Spence even as she learns more about her powers and the mysteries surrounding them. It is also a novel about choice as Gemma and, later in the story, her friends negotiate what it means to be a young woman in Victorian England and try to quiet their own misgivings about their places in that privileged world.
The fascinating thing about A Great and Terrible Beauty is that it’s also a novel about frustration and hopes and, surprisingly, a novel about feminism–set in a time when no one even knew what feminism was. As much as this story is about Gemma Doyle it is also about the silent scream so many women kept bottled in at being commodities to be married off and sent away like so much merchandise being bought and sold.
A Great and Terrible Beauty is part character study, part fantasy, and mostly good storytelling. Rich with historic detail, fantasy, and strong characters, this is the captivating start of a story that continues in Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing.
Possible Pairings: Chime by Franny Billingsley, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, The Ruby in the Smoke by Phillip Pullman, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer