And I'm back for the second night in a row attempting to achieve this task of catching up on my book reviews. As promised, it's not a travel memoir! Tonight I have for you some well done, young adult magical historical fiction that I'm convinced everyone but me has read (but I'm usually wrong about these things).
When Gemma's mother dies of mysterious circumstances that Gemma foresees in a vision, Gemma is packed off to a London boarding school for girls where she hopes to become the sort of girl who will be able to get a good husband. There, she quickly gains entry into an elite circle of new friends - Felicity, a power hungry Admiral's daughter; Pippa, a stunning beauty about to be married off to a much older man; and the unlikely Ann, an orphan whose best hope in Victorian England is to gain a place as governess to a wealthy family. Among her new friends, with the help of secret diary discovered in another vision, she learns that she has the power to transport herself and her friends into magical realms. As the powerlessness their gender dictates for them is revealed, the allure of the magical realms where they get to choose and their best hopes are realized grows. As the four bring magic back to their own world, danger lurks, and only Gemma has the power to stop it.
Despite its historical setting complete with its implications for the girls, A Great and Terrible Beauty's characters face similar situations to today's teenage girls. For Gemma, as for many teenagers, there is always that dangerous line between being herself and changing herself to fit in with her peers. Her friends' activities are at once attractive and repulsive to her, but Gemma is by no means perfect. She is spunky, opinionated, and outspoken. She is blunt and tactless when perfect manners are expected of her. She knows what's right but she does what's wrong. In other words, she is a very real character and one who is easy to sympathize with.
Bray's writing is richly atmospheric, effortlessly evoking the many settings of her story. From a busy Indian marketplace to a slightly spooky girl's boarding school in London to incredible magical realms, Bray's beautifully rendered places play almost as important a role in her story as the girls themselves. Her rich descriptions make this novel a particularly engaging page-turner.
Most significant of all is Bray's skillful handling of the problems inherent in being a young woman in Victorian times and her use of these issues to further our understanding of the particular grip the magical realms have on Gemma, Felicity, Pippa, and Ann. Girls are sent to Spence not to learn for the sake of knowledge but to store up the lessons that will make them good and cultured wives for some wealthy gentleman of their parents' choosing. Bray's characters are strong-willed young women who desire husbands and beauty and fluent French but also want to have their opinions heard, to be able to have the power to influence the courses of their lives, to accomplish things that women aren't even allowed to attempt. This understandable desire for choice and for power plays beautifully into the girls' growing obsessions with the magical realms that will open for Gemma alone.
My heart's a stone, sinking fast. We make polite conversation. Grandmama tells us of her garden and her visiting and all about who is not speaking to whom these days. Tom prattles on about his studies while Ann hangs on his every word as if he were a god. Father is lost to himself. No one asks how I am or what I am doing. They could not care less. We're all looking glasses, we girls, existing only to reflect their images back to them as they'd like to be seen. Hollow vessels of girls to be rinsed of our own ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with the cool, tepid water of gracious compliance.
A Great and Terrible Beauty is a delicious, spooky page-turner that doesn't shy away from serious themes. One of my favorite reads of the year.
Read another review at Reading Adventures.