Maggie Desmond-O'Brien's Reviews > A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
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Feb 18, 12


Surprise, surprise, another one of those books that has sat on my shelf forever...and then was stolen by a younger sister, who never got around to reading it but kept it sitting on her shelf forever...until I was so desperate for a good read that I snuck in and stole it back. First impressions were disappointing - Gemma was whiny, petty, and short-sighted. Of course there's a mysterious and beautiful boy she's "inextricably linked" to, I thought, though kudos to Libba Bray for making him Indian. Strike one. Of course she goes to finishing school where she will discover "great and terrible" secrets about her mother's past. Strike two. Man, am I glad I never made it to strike three, though, because after an awkward takeoff this book turned into one of my favorites I've read this year.

With steampunk fever sweeping YA and beyond, which is awesome, of course, we rarely end up with a novel about the Victorian era that hasn't been reimagined to the nines, and the few that haven't are boring and predictable in comparison. A Great and Terrible Beauty was the first novel that made me rethink that judgment. Minus the fantastical Realms, ritualistic sacrifices, and mysterious Order, the novel felt, to my surprise, absolutely authentic.

As I said in my pirates post, it annoys me to no end when authors - especially YA authors - cheat and give their period characters modern personalities. Of course I don't want to get married and have kids at sixteen even though it's what all my friends are doing because then modern kids couldn't relate to me and their parents wouldn't want me to read this anyway and wahhhh. Instead of falling into that trap, Bray vividly explores the spectrum of emotion that must have been involved, giving us four of the most memorable historical fiction heroines (plus a spectacular array of supporting characters) I've read in...well, maybe that I've read, ever.

The other thing that's kept me re-reading is the by turns matter-of-fact and mystical way gender roles are personified here. The Order vs. the Rakshana? The history geek in me can't get enough, because even though this is fictional, that's pretty much what's been going on since the dawn of time. Attraction between a member of the Order and a member of the Rakshana? The secret, cynical romantic in me laps it up, especially because Kartik and Gemma fight a hundred times more often than they gush, which is exactly how most of the teen relationships I know of play out.

Despite its rough start, the writing, as well, is superb. Malinda Lo posted recently about how distracting a literary style can be, and while I'm a sucker for literary fiction, I couldn't agree more. What she didn't discuss, however, was "literary YA," writing for teens that achieves the doubly difficult task of readability and great prose - funnily enough, as her debut Ash is definitely one of the books I'd put in that category. A Great and Terrible Beauty is another, with quotes like this:

"I don't yet know what power feels like. But this is surely what it looks like, and I think I'm beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and teachers and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It's not that they want to protect us; it's that they fear us." (pg. 207)

Huge win, Libba Bray, for realizing that teens are smart enough to have semicolons in their books. Thank you. Do I need to say anything more?
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