‘A Great and Terrible Beauty’ by Libba Bray
I’ve been in a bit of a reading lull for much of June after I read The Magicians Trilogy and then Ian Frazier’s excellent Travels in Siberia. I’ve never been struck by Post-Amazing Book Disorder so strongly, so I suspect dashing about preparing for a rather lengthy stretch of travel probably fostered the disease a bit more than usual.
In between panicking and packing throughout June, I haunted more “what to read if you liked The Magicians” lists than I care to admit and came up with nothing terribly inspirational. I roamed my bookshelves hoping to inspired and even pilfered a few volumes from my mother’s bookshelves. I started doing crossword puzzles for the first time in years. In short, I was rather adrift, literarily.
The one book from those post-Magicians lists that seemed at least worth trying was Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, about a British girl shipped back to England from her Indian home after her mother’s death to attend a “proper” finishing school. Amidst this upheaval, said girl also starts to have magical visions into a beautiful alternate reality, haunted by her mother and a hideous black spirit intent upon her destruction.
It’s a promising setup, combining some bits of Hogwartsy boarding school with Victorian notions of spiritualism and magic (the Cottingley Fairies girls spring to mind more than once) plus a dash of “Mean Girls” tossed back a hundred years or so.
Despite these alluring parts, I would not by any stretch say this was a particularly great book. What I liked about it most was its largely female cast — there are only about four male characters of any consequence amid a large cast of starring and supporting women, all with rich personalities and backstories. It is rare to find a book so unabashedly focused on women, particularly one spotlighting a teenage girl that doesn’t veer immediately off into territory which defines her by which boy she has a crush on or which male authority figure is telling her what to do.
A Great and Terrible Beauty focuses instead on the intricacies of female intimacy, power, and friendship. This emphasis is both welcome and unusual. Indeed, in terms of casual feminism, author Libba Bray certainly deserves a polite and ladylike “cheers!” for her efforts.
However, the actual meat of the book doesn’t really live up to its initial premise and on-going pro-woman attitude. Protagonist Gemma is alternately infuriating and sympathetic, making the same mistakes over and over again with little in the way of logic or intelligence to slow her down. Her “friends” at the boarding school are classic Mean Girls (plus one classic mousy one) who she spends the book not quite trusting, only to fall over herself with flowery expressions of Victorian love at the very end of the book (out of absolutely no where and, notably, after one of them has been particularly horrid).
The magic itself isn’t terribly interesting either. Since the school is not a magic school, Gemma is left to wander around trying to bungle her way through her newfound powers. Her sole advisor in this matter (whose identity I shall protect in case you do read the book) speaks only in platitudes, most of which suggest Gemma is far from ready to wield her mighty powers, but also offer her no way of gaining the aptitude she needs.
On the bright side, A Great and Terrible Beauty was light enough lift me out of my June reading doldrums, plus Kate reviewed this book a couple of years back and liked it a lot more than I did. So, it’s worth a go if you’re looking for something quick and light. It isn’t as creative or immersive as other magic-at-boarding-school books, nor is it as deep, but it is entertaining and it is a trilogy if you’re looking for a series to dive into.