Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1)A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Libba Bray mentions in her brief "bio" at the end of the audio book that she should've written what she knows, and I found myself agreeing with her. Maybe this story wouldn't have been as compelling set in modern-day Texas, but it wouldn't have had so many problematic elements.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is about young Gemma Doyle, whose mother dies horribly on Gemma's sixteenth birthday. Gemma blames herself for her mother's death, which is why she's so mopey when she first gets to her new finishing school, Spence Academy. She's mean to the only girl who'll speak to her, then bemoans her lack of friends. She finally gains a friend in the most popular girl in school through implied blackmail, and her new friends help her figure out that she's magic, not crazy. She and her new friends go to a magic realm where her dead mother hangs out and says cryptic things and makes unhelpful proclamations about what Gemma needs to do, and Gemma creates conflict by ignoring every bit of common sense slung her way.

I didn't understand why Gemma's mother couldn't at least drop a hint about who Gemma was supposed to be looking for, or how she was supposed to do that in her current situation. When we get the full story on her mother's background, the cryptic approach makes even less sense. You'd think, in one of the scenes where they lie around looking for shapes in the clouds, she might've mentioned some vague geographic hints. Instead, she gives her dire warnings about the terrible things that might happen if she doesn't. Because if she approached it like a thinking person, there would be no plot.

The novel is set in Victorian England (after starting out in India), but the characters rarely seem to inhabit that time period. For young women growing up in 1895, their notions are awfully modern. They chafe at being owned by their future husbands and are defensive of prostitutes. I can see why Gemma's attitude might be more progressive, but hearing it from her classmates and a teacher was odd. The finishing school, Spence, also feels more like a high school with sleeping quarters than a proper Victorian academy for young ladies. Some of the details are authentic, but the tone felt all wrong.

The worst part of the book, though, is the racism. Gemma interacts with "Gypsies" who threaten to rape her, and holds her head high long enough to speak to their resident fortune teller. My mouth actually fell open at the jumble of racist stereotypes, and again in the author commentary section where the author asserts how proud she is of her research. Clearly, she didn't dig long enough to find out that Romani are real people and that the stereotypes have been used to persecute them for centuries.

There was also some mumbling about her exotically beautiful love interest, who was kind of useless in the narrative, and who apparently joins the Gypsies without question.

The story is told in first-person present tense, though Gemma sometimes reflects on things that she hasn't narrated yet. It detracted severely from the sense of immediacy.

The book isn't uniformly terrible, but the terrible elements certainly detracted from my enjoyment of the better parts of the narrative. I was interested to learn what happened next, even if I did wince every time Gemma started talking about Gypsies.

I listened to this on audio, which did enhance my enjoyment somewhat, though how much lower I might've rated this if I'd had to read it, I don't know. I also don't know if I'm going to seek out the other two books in the trilogy. This is a stand-alone story, and the conflict was wrapped up by the end, though I can see where the later stories might go. There's the possibility we may be spared Gypsy depictions in future books, and that Gemma may have learned from her experiences of the first book and will, therefore, be less of a twit. But, I have a lot of other books I could read, instead.

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