A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1)

First Lines: “Please tell me that’s not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening.”  I am staring into the hissing face of a cobra.

Coincidentally, I decided to reread this basically on my birthday, making that first line hilariously ironic.  (P.S. today is my birthday.  24, baby!)  Ok, so this book was my absolute favorite when I was in the 7th grade.  And it’s probably been since about 8th grade since I’d read this.  I was due for a reread.

It’s 1895, and Gemma has never set foot in England.  She’s spent her whole life in India…until the day she has a vision of her mother’s death that ends up being frighteningly true.  Gemma’s sent to Spence, a girls’ academy in London with dangerous secrets and equally dangerous girls.  Initially, she’s snubbed for being different until she blackmails her way into befriending the powerful Felicity, the beautiful Pippa, and Gemma’s own plain roommate Ann.  But life in London isn’t any better than it was in India when the visions won’t leave her alone.  Then Gemma discovers these visions may actually be a portal into new, magical realms.  Dreams come true.  The four friends start off going to get a taste of freedom forbidden to them as women, but magic always comes with a steep price…and someone will pay.

I still have to say that I greatly enjoyed this book.  This book is basically a gothic historical fiction.  There’s plenty of history, especially when it comes to the roles of women at the time, but there’s also a dark supernatural element.  And if that doesn’t spice things up, I don’t know what will.

The characters are interesting as well.  Gemma is inquisitive and cautious, but she’s lured in to the power of the magic.  The beautiful Pippa has secrets she can tell no one.  The powerful Felicity hides a pain that only those closest can understand.  And plain Ann is meek and unassuming, but she has her own strengths.  (My friends and I used to try to decide which one of us was which.  There were four of us…and they are four of them.  I think I was usually given Gemma or Ann.)

What’s quite interesting about this that I can appreciate more now that I’m older (and have a major in English behind me) is how the story is woven together.  There are subtle clues dropped throughout the story for a major twist at the end, and even more twists that you can feel coming but can’t quite see what’s around the corner.  Right from the beginning, the secrets are starting to knit themselves into complex patterns of niggling familiarity and haunting mystery.  <–Oh, I like that.  I have to remember that for later.

Honestly, I think this is a good clean read for any YA reader.  There’s a hint of romance and only a couple of curse words thrown in throughout, so that’s no great concern.  Mostly it’s about oppressed girls who wish to discover who they are before society tells them who to be.  And I think a lot of girls struggle with that, regardless of age.


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