A Great and Terrible Beauty: Book Review
Gemma Doyle has lived an unusual life in India until she has a vision of her mother being murdered. After the vision comes true, Gemma is sent to Spence Academy for Girls near London. In between learning how to curtsy and speak in French, Gemma has strange visions that speak of otherworldly magic. Add in shy Ann, fierce Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and the mysterious boy Kartik who followed her from India and adventures abound.
Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions "for a bit of fun" and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the "others" and rebuild the Order.
After my first encounter with Gemma, I was tempted to put the book down and walk away. She came across as a spoiled and self-centered juvenile who I had no interest in reading about. In time, her moments of immaturity grew on me as I realized it was a pretty accurate depiction of your average sixteen-year-old, and she was strong when the moment required strength from her.
I liked how Gemma and the girls got along. Of course, the original clique was a bit ostracizing considering Gemma blackmailed her way into the group, but it seemed at the same time they found her fascinating. Felicity uses Gemma to make Pippa jealous, and she doesn't seem to mind. Somehow, for some reason, Gemma trusts them with her biggest secret. After they find out about the visions, the group becomes closer…since they have their own little secret. She has visions and the ability to transport them all into a different realm where whatever they can imagine will come into fruition.
When we finally get to the realms, Gemma is told she is not allowed to use her powers outside of the realms. For the longest time no real reason is given, other then the patronizing "because I said so" routine of parents, and so of course when she is pushed by her "friends" (who then seemed to be using her for access to the realms and the power it gave them) to take the magic into the real world, Gemma does so without real fear of the consequences - because they were never properly explained to her.
I did enjoy the slow pacing of the revealing of secrets, as I felt it gave me a reason to continue reading. Without the mystery surrounding the realms, and Gemma's mother's involvement, I doubt I would have kept reading, especially considering that it took almost 300 pages before the realms were presented; the lack of magic and otherworldliness was quite off-putting as I was expecting quite a bit of fantasy. I read elsewhere that the "magic of the realms teeters on the edge of becoming a metaphor for drug use" and I couldn't agree more. There were several scenes where I was expecting the girls to get caught using some substance to explain their vivid delusions, as the images that were described seemed so disjointed.
But overall I enjoyed this book very much. I think it kept my attention well, and although the fantastical elements came a bit later, they were still captivating. Gemma was well developed, and the girls were funny. Kartik and Gemma's relationship was interesting as well. Overall, a very good book and I would recommend it.