CBR-V Review #8: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Why I Read It: Because I read one of Libba Bray’s YA books (Beauty Queens) a year or so ago and enjoyed it.

My Rating: 2.5 stars

Summary: Gemma Doyle is a smart and snarky girl living in Victorian-era India. She loves it there, but when tragedy strikes, she is sent to boarding school in England. It is there that she begins to discover her secret powers, which complicate things. Not only must she uncover the truth about her beloved mother, but she must also learn to control these powers (and the evil that accompanies them) while dealing with school and the two popular bitchy girls that are determined to make her life miserable.

My Review: I wanted to love this book, and maybe if I’d read it when I was younger, I would have. As it was, though, there were too many problems for me to truly enjoy it.

There were some good aspects–I think Gemma is a great heroine, and is funny and smart and entertaining. I liked her a lot, and appreciated (as I usually do with Bray’s books) that young girls reading this would have a strong female protagonist to look up to. I love all things Victorian, and I also love stories about boarding schools (I read a LOT of British fiction set in boarding schools when I was little and the love has sort of stuck with me), so I thought the setting had a ton of potential. I was less excited about the magic aspects of the story, but Bray made those sections genuinely scary and pretty intriguing.

Despite all this, it never really came together. First of all, I couldn’t deal with the anachronisms. I realize that your typical teenage girl wouldn’t notice those things (although I think I would have at that age), but it was SO distracting and really bothered me. For example: upper-class fifteen-year-old Victorian girls talking about sex? Nope, sorry, not buying it.  Gemma’s very modern and snarky inner dialogue? Maybe some girls like that existed, but I doubt it. I read somewhere that Bray did this on purpose, to make it feel more relatable, but it kept taking me out of the narrative and played a big role in why I disliked the book so much. 

I also don’t think Bray really knew where she was going and so it all felt very slapped-together. I’ve read lots of books that successfully marry a school-related plot with a supernatural one (hello, Harry Potter, but also The Magicians by Lev Grossman and anything by Diana Wynne Jones) but this one felt really imbalanced. Those sorts of books work best when the magic underlies everything else that happens; in this book, the parts involving Gemma’s powers felt separate from the rest of the plot. It was almost like Bray didn’t know how to bring the two together–either she could write a book about Victorian teenage girl drama at boarding school (which I would have read) or she could write one about a girl discovering/dealing with magic powers. 

Should You Read It? I wouldn’t, unless you want to spend the entire time reading it wanting to throw the book across the room.


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