A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle #1) by Libba Bray (2003)

a great and terrible beauty

YA Fiction | Historical | Paranormal
4 Stars

“In this debut gothic novel mysterious visions, dark family secrets and a long-lost diary thrust Gemma and her classmates back into the horrors that followed her from India. 

It’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?”

pooled ink Review:

Here’s another paranormal book to celebrate the month of October! As the air becomes crisp and the early mornings wreath my house in fog, I thought it’d be fun to choose books with a bit of fright in them to share on my blog 🎃

I happened to stumble across a copy of this book in an antique shop in the quiet mountains of north Georgia, funnily enough. It was packed with old trinkets and treasures and then I turned yet another corner in the maze and there it was, sitting right on top of a stack of old photos from the 1800s. And it was autographed, no less!

To be honest this book had been on the chopping block in one of my “Down the TBR” posts but it was decided to give it a bit more time and perhaps a chance if I happened by it in the local library. Well I’d forgotten all about it and then suddenly there it was. So clearly it was meant to be.

Overall I rather enjoyed reading this book. It’s a fun combination of Victorian schoolgirl mischief and sinister creatures hiding in shadows of the night. My only real complaint (and this goes for several books) is how fed up I am with characters simply glossing over vital information or blatantly refusing to give it up. Oh honestly, it’s one of the most infuriating things when there is a puzzle of a plot that only gets more tangled simply because no one who knows anything is willing to share with the person or people whom need it even when they know that person/people need it. And it’s not like they’re a villain so why the heck aren’t you helping?? Why must you be vague and frustrating and in the end pointlessly spewing out no longer applicable advice? If the world ends because of a tight-lipped fool then they should be smacked (this isn’t specifically for this book, this is more a general complaint by the way)..

I got on well with Gemma, the main character, for the most part. She can be fiery and strong at times but she can also often be a foolish girl who thinks herself wiser and older than her years as so many teenagers do. A lot could have been avoided without her foolishness but then what sort of life-lesson book would it be?

As to why she didn’t try and read the entirety of a mysterious diary given to her by a ghost girl (or whatever) with the assurance that it will tell her everything she needs to know is beyond me. She claims to be quite curious about her visions (although she simultaneously fights their reality for a good while) and yet despite wanting to know more she gives the diary but a glance until it is later read in snippets as part of the secret club formed by Felicity. I suppose this allows the story to unfold and escalate at a slower and creepier pace, but I still feel it nonsensical on Gemma’s part.

Or why she does not hunt for the photograph depicting the infamous Sarah and Mary when she is so curious? I suppose dead girls mean little. But then her mother, who clearly knows what’s what warns her a thousand and one times about not using the magic and yet of course Gemma knows better and caves into peer pressure for the hundredth time and gives magic a go and even though it takes a horrible toll on them, even when things grow more sinister, they keep going back for more like addicts, which was inevitable. It’s only after her friends go rogue that Gemma gets her head on straight. But then it infuriates me that Felicity blames Gemma and Gemma rather agrees! Ah well….le sigh.

Having a murder or eerie tale set in an English boarding school for boys is simply classic, but what of the girls? Surely they don’t come away unscathed by cruelty and manipulation at school? But of course not, for who doesn’t love spooky tales of witches…

The creepy fog-covered grounds of a very old castle-esque building turned into a Victorian girl’s school was an excellent setting, especially when contrasted to the bright vivacious setting of India with which this book opens. Murder, unseen eyes watching in the night, twisted spirits set on power and destruction,… it all makes for a fantastic October read.

As mentioned before I did have some issues with the story but overall I just let myself get swept away and rather enjoyed it! In fact, this would be a movie I’d be certain to watch (even better to watch it at home in the dark with a few friends).

I also really loved how much the reality of a girl’s fate in those days played at the core of the plot. Women had no freedom and girls had even less. The story narrows down its cast to those who stand out and begin to fight the stifling reality and expectations of their lives. It doesn’t matter who, where, or when, for there will always be those who cannot or will not fit into the dull molds the world wishes of them, and that’s where all the interesting stories begin.

Marching along at a pace somewhere between a brisk English walk and a harried American tromp, the plot shifts between life at school and the calling of the dark, twisting and searching faster and faster until you find yourself quite caught up in the thrill of it all.

A thrilling paranormal read (and something the BBC should get their hands on), A Great and Terrible Beauty ignites the shadows with a chilling tale of power, murder, fate, and the bloody hands who started it all. More than a simple schoolgirl’s woes, this one seeps through realms ready to claim souls.


amazon icon_tiny Purchase here: A Great and Terrible Beauty

Meet Libba Bray!

Libba Bray

What is it about writing an author bio that gives me that deer-in-headlights feeling? It’s not exactly like I’m going to say “I was born in Alabama…” and somebody’s going to jump up and snarl, “Oh yeah? Prove it!” At least I hope not.

I think what gets me feeling itchy is all that emphasis on the facts of a life, while all the juicy, relevant, human oddity stuff gets left on the cutting room floor. I could tell you the facts–I lived in Texas for most of my life; I live in New York City with my husband and six-year-old son now; I have freckles and a lopsided smile; I’m allergic to penicillin.

But that doesn’t really give you much insight into me. That doesn’t tell you that I stuck a bead up my nose while watching TV when I was four and thought I’d have to go to the ER and have it cut out. Or that I once sang a punk version of “Que Sera Sera” onstage in New York City. Or that I made everyone call me “Bert” in ninth grade for no reason that I can think of. See what I mean?

God is in the details. So with that in mind, here is my bio. Sort of.


1. I lived in Texas until I was 26 years old, then I moved to New York City with $600.00 in my shoe (’cause muggers won’t take it out of your shoe, y’know . . . riiiiight . . .) and a punchbowl (my grandmother’s gift) under my arm. I ended up using the punchbowl box as an end table for two years.

2. My dad was a Presbyterian minister. Yes, I am one of those dreaded P.K.s–Preacher’s Kids. Be afraid. Be very afraid . . .

3. The first story I ever wrote, in Mrs. McBee’s 6th grade English class, was about a girl whose family is kidnapped and held hostage by a murderous lot of bank robbers who intend to kill the whole family–including the dog–until the 12-year-old heroine foils the plot and saves the day. It included colored pencil illustrations of manly-looking, bearded criminals smoking, and, oblivious to the fact that The Beatles had already sort of laid claim to the title, I called my novel, HELP. My mom still has a copy. And when I do something she doesn’t like, she threatens to find it.

4. My favorite word is “redemption.” I like both its meaning and the sound. My least favorite word is “maybe.” “Maybe” is almost always a “no” drawn out in cruel fashion.

5. My three worst habits are overeating, self-doubt, and the frequent use of the “f” word.

6. The three things I like best about myself are my sense of humor, my ability to listen, and my imagination.

7. I have an artificial left eye. I lost my real eye in a car accident when I was eighteen. In fact, I had to have my entire face rebuilt because I smashed it up pretty good. It took six years and thirteen surgeries. However, I did have the pleasure of freezing a plastic eyeball in an ice cube, putting it in a friend’s drink, (“Eyeball in your highball?”) and watching him freak completely. Okay, so maybe that’s not going down on my good karma record. But it sure was fun.

8. In 7th grade, my three best friends and I dressed up as KISS and walked around our neighborhood on Halloween. Man, we were such dorks.

9. I once spent New Year’s Eve in a wetsuit. I’d gone to the party in a black dress that was a little too tight (too many holiday cookies) and when I went to sit down, the dress ripped up the back completely. Can we all say, mortified? The problem was, my friends were moving out of their house–everything was packed and on a truck–and there was nothing I could put on . . . but a wetsuit that they still had tacked to the wall. I spent the rest of the party maneuvering through throngs of people feeling like a giant squid.

10. I got married in Florence, Italy. My husband and I were in love but totally broke, so we eloped and got married in Italy, where he was going on a business trip. We had to pull a guy off the street to be our witness. It was incredibly romantic.

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