A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray (Delacorte Press, 2003)

I’ve been hyping this book to everyone I can, and the best way I’ve found to describe it “The Secret Garden meets The Craft,” or “Little Princess meets Little Witches.” Don’t think I’m trying to pigeonhole this beautifully fascinating book; it’s a lot more than it seems. Set in 1895, it manages to capture a number of Victorian themes: the double standard of sexuality, a fascination with the occult, gender expectations, and an era of colonial globalization. And yet boiling it down like that does the book an injustice.
Sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle has lived her entire life with her family in India, but she yearns for the sophistication and civilization of London. When her mother is tragically killed in what Gemma knows to be anything but a random murder, Gemma is sent to England to finish her education at the Spence Academy. There, she makes new friends, and new enemies, the matter complicated by her growing magical abilities and the mysteries surrounding her family’s past. As Gemma recruits several other young ladies to explore the occult, they become entangled in a decades-old tragedy, and in the workings of a group of magic-wielding females once called the Order. However, what they don’t realize is that they’re drawing the attention of powers beyond their comprehension, dangerous powers that could destroy them all. Is the potential for beauty, for power, for enlightenment, for love, and for reuniting with lost relatives worth the risk? Gemma and her companions may not learn until it’s too late. And what parts do an old diary, and a band of Gypsies have to play? All will be told, eventually.
A Great and Terrible Beauty is gorgeous, sensual in places and terrifying in others, an impressive debut from newcomer Libba Bray. It captures a group of young ladies during a turmoil-filled period of their lives, caught on the brink of womanhood, in an era likewise undergoing a transition, and continually manages to surprise. I’m looking forward to Bray’s next offering. A special mention should also be given to the eye-catching cover by Trish Watts and Michael Frost.

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