It's the summer of 1895, and 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is bored and impatient. Tired of her life in Bombay, India, she's indignant that her mother continually rebuffs her requests to move to London. But Gemma's teenage angst is quickly forgotten when she has a terrible vision, a frightening experience that sets off an astonishing series of events. In the space of a few shocking moments, her life is altered in ways she never could have imagined—and suddenly, her days are far from boring.
After tragedy strikes, Gemma's family falls apart, and her pompous brother deposits her at Spence Academy, a boarding school near London. Readers who enjoy the archetypal high-school-girl-triumphs-over-her-tormentors storyline will not be disappointed in the characters Bray has created: unfashionable scholarship student Ann; beautiful yet mean-spirited Pippa, and power-hungry Felicity become central to the plot and commit much mischief after lights-out. There is also the sophisticated but wise teacher, the uptight headmistress who just might have something to hide and, for good measure, a compelling-yet-creepy young man who utters cryptic warnings to an increasingly disconcerted—yet determinedly curious—Gemma.
And yes, Gemma uses her wit and creativity to win the girls over, learning along the way that she has ties to a former Spence student who possessed strange powers, too. As her visions become ever more vivid and strange, it becomes clear that her new talents are from an unearthly realm. She convinces the other girls to join her in learning more about these powers, and together they venture into a world where each discovers her own strengths, longings and weaknesses.
As the cover indicates, there is a bit of bodice-ripping to be found in Bray's book, but for the most part, corsets are loosened rather than torn off. Bray also explores family secrets, personal history and the ways in which knowledge, power and ego interact and affect one another. A Great and Terrible Beauty is a multi-layered, ambitious work that mixes history, magic, romance, humor and mystery, making it a good choice for a wide range of readers.
Linda M. Castellitto writes from Rhode Island. Copyright 2004 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2004 Fall
Arriving at her Victorian London boarding school, Gemma finds that the mystery of her mother's death has followed her from India. The machinations of her schoolmates, along with visions of another realm where her mother exists, lead Gemma into danger. The author weaves historical fiction, romance, and the supernatural into a captivating story. Copyright 2004 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2003 November #2
Had Gemma but known what occult horrors would await her, would she still have wanted to leave India? Sixteen-year-old Gemma is sent to her long-desired London when her mother commits suicide. In a terrifying vision, she sees her mother attacked by a vile supernatural force. Would revelation of her own strange mental powers cause more scandal than her mother's outré death? A sexy but suspicious young man has followed Gemma from India, and cryptically warns her to muffle her visions. Such constraint seems the goal of Gemma's proper finishing school as well. With corsets, deportment lessons, and rules, Spence Academy shapes prim young ladies. But the seemingly proper girls of Spence reveal various sexualities, passions, and hopes that strain the seams of their strict Victorian education. Mysterious continued visions, dark family secrets, and a long-lost diary thrust Gemma and her classmates back into the horrors that followed her from India. A Gothic touched by modern conceptions of adolescence, shivery with both passion and terror. (Fiction. YA) Copyright Kirkus 2003 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2003 December #2
In the opening scene of Bray's riveting debut novel set in Victorian times, narrator Gemma Doyle walks the streets of Bombay, India, with her mother on her 16th birthday. By the end of the second chapter, her mother, who has told Gemma to return home, is dead, and Gemma has envisioned just how it happened, involving a "dark shape" that makes a "slithering sound." Next, readers find her on a train bound for Victoria Station, en route to Britain's Spence Academy. Gemma's visions intensify while at school, where she is led to a nearby cave and discovers a diary of a woman who had similar experiences. She soon learns of an age-old Order of sorceresses who can open doors between worlds-and of a tragedy two decades prior that is beginning to cast its shadow over her. Meanwhile, the girls of Spence are preparing for their "season," when they will be trotted out before wealthy bachelors in hopes of securing a good marriage. Bray brilliantly depicts a caste system, in which girls are taught to abandon individuality in favor of their man's wishes, as a deeper and darker horror than most things that go bump in the night. While aimed at female readers, it will be just as delectable to boys brave enough to be seen carrying a book sporting a corset-clad girl on the cover. The pace is swift, the finale gripping. A delicious, elegant gothic. Ages 12-up. (Dec.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2004 February
Gr 9 Up-An interesting combination of fantasy, light horror, and historical fiction, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure. On her 16th birthday, Gemma Doyle fights with her mother. She wants to leave India where her family is living, runs off when her mother refuses to send her to London to school, has a dreadful vision and witnesses her mother's death. Two months later, Gemma is enrolled in London's Spence School, still troubled by visions, and unable to share her grief and guilt over her loss. She gradually learns to control her vision and enter the "realms" where magical powers can make anything happen and where her mother waits to instruct her. Gradually she and her new friends learn about the Order, an ancient group of women who maintained the realms and regulated their power, and how two students unleashed an evil creature from the realms by killing a Gypsy girl. Gemma uncovers her mother's connection to those events and learns what she now must do. The fantasy element is obvious, and the boarding-school setting gives a glimpse into a time when girls were taught gentility and the importance of appearances. The author also makes a point about the position of women in Victorian society. Bray's characters are types-Felicity, clever and powerful; Ann, plain and timid; Pippa, beautiful and occasionally thoughtless; Gemma, spirited and chafing under society's rules-but not offensively so, and they do change as the story progresses. The ending leaves open the likelihood of a sequel. Recommend this to fantasy fans who also like Sherlock Holmes or Mary Russell.-Lisa Prolman, Greenfield Public Library, MA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
VOYA Reviews 2004 April
Despite having argued long and hard to be allowed to go to London, the Gemma Doyle that arrives on the doorstep of the city's fashionable Spence Academy is not the discontented teenager from Bombay who had her hopes set on the big city. Mourning the tragic death of her mother, she is unable tell anyone the truth. Saddened by her father's retreat into laudanum and her oh-so-proper brother's insistence that she be the prim Victorian miss that she is not, Gemma despairs of fitting in. Her role as an outsider seems assured when beautiful Pippa and sophisticated Felicity lump her with her roommate, Ann, a scholarship student. To top it off, one of the mysterious men present when her mother died seems to be following her. Her bleak prospects change when she is led to the diary of Mary Dowd, a former Spence girl who penetrated the secrets of The Realm that now link Gemma, her mother, Felicity, Ann, and Pippa with a life and death struggle This classic boarding school drama with gothic tones deals with real issues-a woman's place, the question of self-determinism, the impact on young lives of a lack of parental love and attention-within an excitingly supernatural framework. Plot, setting, and characterization are all strong. Questions of life, love, maturity, responsibility, and the harrowing nature of choices are seamlessly worked into a compulsively readable story, open ended enough to hint at the possibility of a sequel. Soundly researched and credible, this exhilarating and thought-provoking read is for the junior high level up, especially for girls who have enjoyed Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza series and are ready for something a bit more challenging and mature.-Ann Welton PLB $17.99. ISBN 0-385-90161-5. 4Q 3P S A/YA Copyright 2004 Voya Reviews.