Joint Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray

Kaite: Time for a joint review! You’ve probably seen our book from this post in every bookstore and library around, which is precisely why we had to see what all the fuss was about. But, if I may be so abrupt, I have to say I was disappointed with this one, and I have a feeling my compatriot feels the same.

Deborah: Yup. Not the best book ever written, that’s for sure. It held my attention, that much is true. I was actually pretty into it for the first hundred pages or so. Starting off in colonial India was sort of interesting, but then things very quickly became wacky…and very dark and creepy.

Kaite: I think we’ll be agreeing on a lot of our points today. To give our readers an idea of what is going on in this novel (because you won’t be picking it up after you read our review), on the day Gemma Doyle turns 16, certain events make her life in India change forever. She ends up at a boarding school in England where she makes ‘friends’, and together the four of them end up exploring the magical realms Gemma has found she is able to access. Oh and this mysterious teenage boy from India follows (stalks) her to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble (?). The question mark is there because there is no clear reason why he follows her. He doesn’t give her useful information about her power, and is really just a sullen creep that is supposed to become a love interest. How did you find the rest of the characters in the book, Debs?

Deborah: Well let’s see, we’ve covered the protagonist and her lover boy, and that pretty much just leaves us with the terrible friends. Why are they terrible, you might ask? Because they’re the 19th century version of these:

Oh no she didn’t.

If they’re not selfish, self-centered, and power-hungry, Gemma’s friends are just plain mean. Why she befriends them is questionable. Her first encounter with them is when they lock her, alone, inside a church in the middle of the night. But after that she learns some of their dark secrets and this (naturally) allows her to trust them enough to let them in on her own. The friends then manipulate her into using her power for their continued benefit, but don’t worry, because underneath all the peer-pressure, they’re actually really nice people!

What sort of message is this sending? Tolerate your bullies and eventually everyone will be the best of friends? More frustrating than that, however, is how Bray tried to make Gemma into some sort of hero by ‘bargaining’ that the less-than-popular Anne also join their group. Frankly I think Anne is the one who lowered herself. Gemma’s occasional kindness seemed motivated by pity. Worse still, she often came off like a modern day teenager, which took me out of the historical aspect. (And, I might add, other than the whining that “ooh my corset is too tight!”, this shouldn’t count as historical fiction.)

Kaite: Yes, it was a big turn-off that such modern characters were intruding this supposed historical fiction. With these modern characters came ‘modern’ themes, namely feminism, which just further detracted from the believability of the book. Young girls being forced into an arranged marriage, social standing or appearance determining the path your life will take, and the overall inability to determine their own future were also major themes. It became a pity party. The four girls each display flaws which one would think would lead to interesting and complex characters, but the reality falls short. As Deborah mentioned to me earlier, a woman who is outspoken or tenacious does not necessarily make a strong female lead. I got the feeling a lot of readers fell for these flaws for what they were intended to be – the makings of a unique character.

Throughout this book I was continually reminded of other novels/movies that must have been very strong influences on Bray’s plot. I am not refering to any sort of copy-catting (I’m not even going to bring up the ‘P’ word), but perhaps a girl sent off to boarding school is a theme too well-trod, especially if it is not handled the right way. When Gemma moves from India to an English boarding school it is nearly impossible not to think of  Frances Hodgson Burnetts’ A Little Princess or The Secret Garden. The Dead Poets’ Society (screenplay by Tom Schulman) pretty much sums up the rest of the story, minus all the annoyingly vague ‘realm’ stuff.

Deborah: It’s interesting that you reference some of my all-time favourite titles. You’ve alluded to my main frustrations with this book: it had all the elements I usually look for in fiction, but then it fell short. Like you, I could see what the author was trying to do, but ultimately it didn’t work.

Kaite: Bray just tried to hit too many popular topics in YA fiction. There’s a fantasy element that is not all intriguing, a love interest who is a big turn-off, a boarding school with none of its awesomeness, and a clique of friends that is obviously unhealthy. But the list of things that didn’t work in this book goes on. Like the band of Gypsies that, obviously, camp right next to an all-girls school in the country. Nothing odd with that! Or the school-sanctioned field trip to see a fortune-teller. This is the 1800’s, right? I honestly can’t believe that happening in any decade, ever.

I’m sorry to lay it on so thick, but even with my low expectations, this was a disappointment. With so many other great YA reads out there, it is disheartening to see how many enjoyed this book.

Deborah: But because we’re such helpful people, we’re gonna end this very negative review with a positive: a list of alternate novels for you to check out the next time you spot A Great and Terrible Beauty on a shelf somewhere.

  • For proper historical fiction and a similar tone: Frances Hodgson Burnett, as mentioned; perhaps also Jennifer Donnelly’s YA novels, especially A Northern Light.
  • For the fantasy aspect: Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart (it’s a trilogy, but I’ve only read the first so I can only vouch for that one); any Gail Carson Levine (though meant for a bit younger crowd); some of Neil Gaiman’s work (though none of it would count as ‘chick lit’).

We’ve made it pretty hard for anyone to admit they liked this book, but please do sound off in the comments about what you thought. Or maybe you can help think up more alternatives! In any case, thanks for reading!

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One response

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: Best Young Adult Series | A Novel Thing

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