A Great and Terrible Beauty (by Libba Bray)

9 09 2011

The first book the cat picked up from Libba Bray was Going Bovine. The cat was sold on wacky Libba-world! The second book the cat picked up was Beauty Queens…what a stinker that turned out to be! Then the cat started to wonder: what’s up with Libba Bray? Is she just a one-hit-wonder? Can she peak again? Has she peaked before?? The cat admits that she was hesitant to pick up A Great and Terrible Beauty for a the longest of times (OK, so 2 months), fearing that Going Bovine was basically Libba Bray’s ‘moment de gloire’ and that was it with Libba…

Luckily – luckily! – the cat was wrong. With A Great and Terrible Beauty Libba Bray proves that she is capable of writing more than just that one deliciously weird yet terribly great book. And what is more, it shows that even when (especially when!) you (an editor) keep Libba Bray in check, she can still write a good book… granted, it follows more genre conventions than she might like, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is a Victorian Gothic/Fantasy Novel. We follow 16-year-old Gemma Doyle who’s uprooted from India to a boarding school in England – Spence – after her mother is murdered. Gemma has ‘visions’, her deepest secret, something she should never tell anyone if she is to become a proper Victorian lady aspiring to marry rich – something which should be her only ambition of course.

The setting of the book is the gothic setting of the Victorian boarding school, some of the characters are also fairly typical of that particular genre, like the gypsies who are of course capable of magic, the ‘innocent’ maidens, etc. The fantastical element is something that is a constant in Libba Bray’s writing. Here too we’re in the real world one second, but in ‘the realms’ the next. What make this book then doubly interesting for ‘young ladies’ is the feminist (for lack of a better word) message: do not settle for less than your potential. You should not be content with a destiny that lies in “tea dances and proper place settings”.  If you’re presented with a choice, the different choice is usually the one that is right for you.

A Great and Terrible Beauty shows a Libba Bray kept in check. It’s a book with ups, but also with a few downs. It shows that providing a certain structure does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. It shows some of the greatness that Libba Bray is capable of. It shows that an editor’s job is incredibly important. This book has structure, it has focus, yet Libba Bray’s signature is still all over the book!

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