Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

So, I don’t just watch TV all the time, believe it or not. I also read. A lot. In particular, I am addicted to YA and children’s literature. I wanted to start doing book reviews, but sometimes I don’t have a lot of important or smart-sounding stuff to say about books, and yet when it comes to YA/children’s lit, I always have something to say. So brilliant deductive thinker that I am, I’ve decided to start writing some YA/children’s book reviews. I know I’m excited. Let us begin!

beautyTitle: A Great and Terrible Beauty (and Rebel Angels)

Author: Libba Bray

My grade: B+

A Great and Terrible Beauty is the first in a trilogy of novels about Gemma Doyle, her friends, and her wacky powers. In a nutshell: After her mother’s death in India, Gemma moves to an English boarding house with lots of secrets and mysterious locked-up wings and such. She makes some frenemies and discovers that she has these weird powers that let her transport herself and her friends into the Realms, an idyllic fantasy world where everything is awesome. OR IS IT? There are secret societies, gypsies, magical antics, and Victorian angst.

This book basically combines lots of things I love, mainly Victorians and magic. The premise is certainly original, the plot moves along pretty fast, and there’s an interesting and well-thought-out mythology, but the stars of this novel are its characters. Gemma, Ann, Felicity, and Pippa are the four girls who find their way to the magical Realms and have all sorts of hijinx both there and in the real world. Yeah, there’s the start of a romantic subplot between Gemma and Kartik, but the real emotional center of the book is in these four girls’ friendship. Like I said, they’re pretty much frenemies—sometimes they get along smashingly, and other times, some of them don’t seem to like each other very much. We don’t get a lot of meaningful depictions of feminine friendship in the media, and I can’t commend this book enough for giving us interesting ties between four different girls, not all of whom are very nice. (Felicity is a bitch, and she is totally my favorite.)

But here’s the thing. This book (and its sequel, Rebel Angels—I haven’t read The Sweet, Far Thing) has a few problems. The first problem is that the book kind of assumes you haven’t read any other fantasy novels. I have, so there were certain Shocking Plot Twists that I could see coming pretty far away, and then I get frustrated because Gemma and Co. just don’t get there fast enough. I wanted to hit Gemma over the head a few times, because she never quite listens to her better judgment. A pattern emerges: Gemma realizes/is warned that Something is dangerous, but her friends really want to do Something, and they can’t do it without her, so they pressure her into agreeing. Gemma inevitable gives in and eventually, there is danger and peril, because Gemma can’t freaking stand up to her friends. The second book in particular has this Giant Warning Sign that Gemma chooses to ignore until the end of the book while the reader sits around and waits for her to realize that Something Bad Is Happening. It gets tiring.

The other problem is that the book is trying too damn hard to be meaningful. The themes really want you to know they’re there, so they reach out and smack you in the face a couple of times. It’s one of those things where the teacher will give a meaningful lesson on something that ties into the heroine’s dilemma. Along with this lack of subtlety is the author’s attempt to cram every last YA issue into the books. It’s like she’s trying to tell us that teens in the 19th century had the same problems that present-day teens have! I get it. That doesn’t mean they have to have all of the problems any present-day teen might have. There’s a trend in YA and children’s lit nowadays where the author feels the need to address some important topic (death, abandonment, drug abuse, you name it), because just telling a fun story isn’t enough anymore. Sometimes it works beautifully, of course, but sometimes I feel like I’m being bashed over the head with this big important issue, like the book is determined to make me cry or something. I think of this as Serious Business Syndrome, because when books start getting overwhelmingly preachy or meaningful about certain topics, I imagine them being like, “THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS.” And then, of course, I can’t take them seriously.

So, Libba Bray’s first two books in her trilogy are definitely fun and entertaining, and they have some really great female characters. I don’t love them, but I really like them, and I’d give them a look if you’re into fantasy, Victorians, or YA lit.



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