Published December 9th, 2003
Gemma was a young, free-spirited 16 year old girl, being brought up in India but wanting nothing to do with the place. Her heart lies in London, a city she greatly wants to visit and go to school in. Though her mother refuses, Gemma keeps pushing until one day her mother is gone and lost forever, dying right in front of her very eyes. Soon after she is shipped off to Spence, a ladies finishing school in London, the very place she had always desired.
A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy--jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.
Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother's death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls' academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. 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. A Great and Terrible Beauty is an impressive first book in what should prove to be a fascinating trilogy.
However, Spence isn't what it seems. Secrets are hidden in every corridor and the girls there are the opposite of proper, instead acting truly scandalous. Though she has a bumpy start, becoming a bit of an outcast, she eventually forms and alliance with a group of girls she grew to both love and hate. After discovering an old journal the groups lives change drastically, quickly spiraling out of their control.
Gemma was strong when she needed to be, though there was a large layer of hurt buried underneath her skin. She wanted nothing more than to be reunited with her dear mother, something that comes back to haunt her later on in the story. She is better than most at judging people, but like any normal teen girl, still floats towards the wrong people just to be accepted. Watching her aquire her powers was a fascinating process, one that I hope to learn more of in the rest of the series.
Spence was a school completely surrounding in mysteries, reminding me of a Gothic themed haunted mansion you'd go to visit on a dark Halloween night. A Great and Terrible Beauty was one with excellent world-building and character building skills, one that kept me on my seat with anticipation late into the night. At times I even found myself getting a bit more than a little terrified or antsy, though this goes against my usually reaction to books.
A sure page-turner, this was one fantastic start to what I'm sure is an amazing series. Now.. if I could only get my hands on the last two installments!!