Book Reviews

Review: “A Great & Terrible Beauty,” Libba Bray

April 13, 2014
Review: “A Great & Terrible Beauty,” Libba BrayA Great & Terrible Beautyby Libba Bray
Series: The Gemma Doyle Trilogy #1
Published by Simon & Schuster on December, 2003
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, Witches
Pages: 403

It's 1895 and, after the death of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped from the 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 finds he reception a chilly one.

She's not completely alone, though... she's being followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

It's at Spence that Gemma's power to attract the supernatural unfolds as she becomes entangled with the school's most powerful girls and discovers her mother's connection to a shadowy, timeless group called The Order. Her destiny awaits... if only Gemma can believe in it.

It’s been six years since my last venture into the ‘Gemma Doyle Trilogy’ and I couldn’t wait to re-read the series from a reviewers point of view. Years on, the first installment still holds an exceptional amount of magic. With it’s complex characters and relationships, poignant writing and mixed sense of wonder and danger, A Great & Terrible Beauty survives the test of time and firmly holds on to its position as a personal favourite.

Buddy re-reading with Hanna @ Luminous Words

There are so many elements of A Great & Terrible Beauty that make it a lasting favourite of mine. I’m not sure if it’s the flawed and wonderful characters, the strength and humour of our heroine, the dangerously beautiful sense of magic in the realms or the Victorian-era England we’re swept away to. I just know that I love it all and times haven’t changed that.

I must be honest; when I first read this book back in 2007, I was not a historical YA reader. I had qualms about diving into this series but I was persuaded by a friends love for it and decided to go for it. The first half of the novel bored me a little back then, but I was soon blown away. The series became a fierce love of mine from then on, and I attribute this series and Libba Bray’s expertise to forming the foundations for my love of historical YA.

A lot of books I re-read from this period in my life don’t hold the same magic anymore. A Great & Terrible Beauty does, in fact it exceeds it. From the very first page I was hooked and drawn back into the love and magic of this series. Libba Bray writes flawlessly, lyrically and with such her own sense of style. Gemma Doyle, our protagonist, is such a fierce leading lady that’s so likeable it hurts.

The despicable Felicity Worthington retains her ‘badness’, but somehow you grow to love her. Felcity is a favourite of mine, on par if not above Gemma herself, and I couldn’t help but love her wicked and charming attitude toward the world. She is a strong female character and together with Gemma I feel they could tackle anything.

The droll Ann Bradshaw was never a character I liked, and it was the same this time around. However, she brings a certain essence to the group that’s integral to the flow of events and despite my disdain for her, I love the way she, Gemma, Felicity and Pippa come together. It’s a weird and wonderful friendship that works and evolves from the first to the last page.

I also love the relationship between Gemma and Kartik. While we don’t see a lot of interaction from the two in this book, it sets up the foundations on attraction. It’s a slow-building relationship and by no means the focus of the novel.

The world of magic and the Realms is incredible. It’s a dream world that’s dark and inviting, beautiful and strange. You can’t help but be swept away by all of its delights. Here the girls are free from their bonds as ‘proper young ladies’ and you really see their characters and relationships grow.

I can’t stress enough just how much I adore Libba Bray’s writing in the ‘Gemma Doyle Trilogy’. I’ve read her other novel, Beauty Queens, and her style is just so vastly different when switching between genres. I much prefer her historical fantasy writing, as in this book, so I can’t wait to read The Diviners after I finish my re-read of Gemma’s story.

Recommended to: If you haven’t given this book a chance before, what better time than now? The ‘Gemma Doyle Trilogy’ sets the benchmark for YA historical fantasy and makes it very hard for others of its kind to come close to its sheer brilliance.

About Libba Bray

New York Times bestselling author Libba Bray was raised on a diet of Monty Python, loud rock n roll, Hammer Horror films and suburban Texas ennui. She started off weird and just got weirder. It's a miracle she's not in prison. Libba lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son, and two cats of questionable intelligence.


  • Reply Olivia (Bookcomet) May 11, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    This is the oldest unread book I have on my shelf…I’m so happy to see you think it’s amazing :) What’s your favourite in the trilogy? I’ve never read anything by Libba Bray before, but I’d really love to – especially Beauty Queens. I mean, come on, how awesome does that book sound?
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  • Reply Alicia the Awesome April 27, 2014 at 7:06 am

    I absolutely love this series as well! I haven’t read it since becoming a reviewer so I have to do the same thing. I can’t wait; it was so good. They really need to make a movie about it…
    I actually liked Ann a little bit and wasn’t sure about Felicity the whole time, but I felt like the group as a whole was unstoppable and each person had their own great qualities. It’s a wonderful series.

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    • Reply Brittany @ Nice Girls Read Books April 27, 2014 at 12:35 pm

      It is SUCH a wonderful series. This is my second time re-reading The Sweet Far Thing, but I re-read the other two twice before this time around. It never loses its magic!

      I love being able to review them on the blog, too!

      It’s wonderful that different readers relate to all the girls. I totally agree – their group had the perfect mix of personalities and strength.
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  • Reply Jeann @ Happy Indulgence April 20, 2014 at 7:56 am

    Love the new? design Brittany! This is one of my favourites as well, I haven’t been able to find anything else like it. I read it before I became a book blogger and man, it was amazing.
    Jeann @ Happy Indulgence recently posted…Publisher Q&A for Bloggers & Reviewers: An Insider’s GuideMy Profile

    • Reply Brittany @ Nice Girls Read Books April 20, 2014 at 7:01 pm

      Thanks Jeann. I spent a long time on a new layout only to have it not work – so I thought I’d try again!

      As for AGATB, I read and loved the whole series before I had my blog too and I really wanted to have them on here so I thought why not re-read them?
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  • Reply Hannah; April 16, 2014 at 12:43 am

    Hey ho, buddy-read ;) I was so much slower than you, but here I am! I finished this re-read last night and I can’t wait to write my review with lot of feels and tears.

    This book is SO perfect it hurts. I loved every single page of it, every shadow hiding in the corners of the realms and all those unique and flawed characters –I can’t help but hate and love them at the same time. Fee, Gemma, Ann, Pippa… all of them full of broken dreams and lost hopes. *sobs*

    And Libba Bray’s writing style is too perfect!!! I usually don’t feel comfortable with books narrated in present, but this one is just PERFECT. I have to read “Rebel Angels” very sooon… I don’t want to reach “The sweet far thing”, though. Too many feelings.

    • Reply Brittany April 16, 2014 at 8:53 am

      Hiiiii Buddy reader!! I can’t wait to read your review, either! (Oops, maybe it will be in Spanish? Either way YAY)

      It is perfect, isn’t it? So lovely. And the characters are just so amazing too.

      I can’t wait for you to read The Sweet Far Thing, since it will be your first time! AHHH! The feels!!!!!
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  • Reply Kate @ Fictional Thoughts April 15, 2014 at 1:28 am

    Im currently reading a Libba Bray book (the Diviners) but have been curious about Gemma Doyle. I bought the third book somewhere cheap and just need to get around to reading the first one! Glad you liked this one as much as you did 7 years ago :)
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  • Reply Natalie April 14, 2014 at 10:56 am

    I need to re-read this series! I remember you telling me I HAD to read it, and I did, and just fell in love.

    • Reply Brittany April 14, 2014 at 4:57 pm

      YES. It’s amazing, amazing, amazing!

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