Book Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle #1) by Libba Bray

This book was one of the first YA books that I ever fell in love with, and rereading it made me remember why I love this series, this author, and this genre so much.

4/5 stars

cover a great and terrible beauty

synopsis for reviews 2

Gemma Doyle, sixteen and proud, must leave the warmth of her childhood home in India for the rigid Spence Academy, a cold finishing school outside of London, followed by a stranger who bears puzzling warnings. Using her sharp tongue and agile mind, she navigates the stormy seas of friendship with high-born daughters and her roommate, a plain scholarship case. As Gemma discovers that her mother’s death may have an otherworldly cause, and that she herself may have innate powers, Gemma is forced to face her own frightening, yet exciting destiny . . . if only she can believe in it.

*I took this synopsis from the Random House website because I did not like the Goodreads one.*

Add it on Goodreads

my thoughts for reviews 1

This was my fourth time reading A Great and Terrible Beauty. Even so, I hadn’t read the story since I started high school, so it was strange experience because I simultaneously remembered nothing and everything.

I absolutely loved Gemma as our protagonist. She was a perfectly imperfect main character. She tried to be a good person, but she also had jealousies and insecurities; she could be charitable and spiteful in equal measure. However, even when she did something ridiculously stupid, I always understood why she was making that choice, which for me is the most important part of writing a protagonist. She is trapped between wanting to be the perfect daughter society wants and wanting to figure out who she really is.

I also adore the setting of this book. After watching her mother be murdered inexplicably, Gemma leaves her home in India and is sent to a British finishing school to be transformed into a proper British lady. Bray’s depiction of turn-of-the-century England is gorgeous and unforgiving, capturing both it’s charms and its faults. Spence, the school Gemma is sent to, has an unmistakable atmosphere, equal parts strict discipline and eerily supernatural.

And then there are the characters Gemma meets at Spence: Ann, the shy scholarship student; Pippa, the spiteful and jealous beauty; and Felicity, the harsh and power-hungry queen bee. Each of them begins the story with a simple persona, but as Gemma gets to know each girl better, their hidden layers are revealed.

Truly, these girls are some of the most “alive” characters I have ever read. The way that their moods shift depending on small events or subtext, the way that each character has a different dynamic with each other character—they feel real in a way that other characters just don’t.

It is not a perfect friendship, or even a particularly healthy one at at times. The four girls are bound together by secrets and jealousies as much as they are by genuine affection. However, they are also intensely close with each other, craving each other’s company. This creates a group dynamic that is nothing like the cheery, all-for-one-and-one-for-all friendships I typically see in YA.

Warning time: this book totally has girl-girl hate, spitefulness, and bitchiness. If that is not your thing, I respect that…but I would ask that you do not write off this book immediately because of it. Unlike a lot of Mean Girl-type characters, every bitchy girl in this book has a reason for their actions, whether that be society’s prejudices or their own secret fears. Because of this, their hatefulness makes sense and helps develop the story and their characters instead of existing just to have an evil clique for the protagonist to conflict with. In all honesty, I 100% did not mind the girl-girl hate in this book (but if you did, I understand where you are coming from).

Finally, the supernatural side of this book. From the moment Gemma’s mother is murdered, Gemma knows that something is not right with her. She starts having over-powering and terrifying visions and ends up discovering a magical and dangerous place called the Realms.

I LOVE the paranormal side of A Great and Terrible Beauty. As the title suggests, the magic Gemma discovers is both wonderful and horrible. This book has some incredibly creepy scenes, but it also has girls turning leaves into butterflies. From this, the book—and the entire series—explores the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, in a really interesting and creative way.

There is a little bit of romance, but it does not dominate the plot at all. Most of the “romantic” parts of the book are really just Gemma discovering herself and breaking away from her society. I really appreciate that the author chose to have Gemma go through a sexual awakening without falling in love. It’s different from the standard YA mold and it makes more sense with Gemma’s character.

A Great and Terrible Beauty has at its heart the themes of rebellion and self discovery. Even though the girls were raised in an extremely conservative society, they rebel and dare to wish for forbidden things. Still, every character has a reason for their rebellion, something that makes their rebellions so much more poignant.

I would recommend A Great and Terrible Beauty to fans of historical settings and paranormal stories who also want to read about the day-to-day discoveries of Gemma and her friends as they suffer through finishing school. It is an emotional, well written story that asks the reader questions that it does not always have the answer for.

Top Ten Characters I’d Like to Check In With

top ten tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week, they post a new Top Ten topic and other bloggers respond with their own lists. I take part in this meme when I have something to say for the topic and I remember what day it is.

I love this prompt a lot. We all have those series that we just can’t believe ended, and epilogues are never enough of a (hopefully happy) ending. Here are some of the characters that I want to check in on and see how they’re doing in their lives once their stories ended. Admittedly, most of these are couples who I want to see have good, peaceful times together (rather than life and death and trauma). And for most of these, I want entire novels, not just a quick “check in.”

1. Viola and Todd from Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy

The ending of these books KILLED ME! There is no way to describe how much I NEED TO KNOW what happens next.

2. Everyone from Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

cover beauty queens

This book actually had a great epilogue that gave the reader a window into each of the characters’ later lives, but I want more! I need another book–another series! I love these girls so much.

3. Puck and Sean (and Corr) from Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater

cover scorpio races

There is a great line which foreshadows the ending of this book, said by the American visitor to the island, that goes something like (forgive my awful memory), “Next year, you’ll have a barn of your own and Puck in your bed and I’ll buy from you instead of Malvern”–and I need this to be true. I need to see it happen. They are the cutest couple ever, but you don’t see a lot of them actually being together, especially in the aftermath of the climax of the book.

4. Anna, Lola, and Isla (and their BFs) from the Anna and the French Kiss series by Stephanie Perkins

(Side note: can we decide on a title for this series? I have no idea what to call it…) I fell in love with these characters and loved the glimpses of each of them you caught in the others’ books, but, of course, I want more stories of all of them reuniting and being amazing together.

5. Gemma in the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

Gemma is one of my favorite protagonists, and the ending of A Sweet Far Thing was traumatic and hopeful at the same time, and I’d love to see where Gemma ends up.

6. Del and Livia from Going Underground by Susan Vaught

cover going underground

This couple is so perfectly sweet, I think checking in on them would just make me smile.

7. Harry, Ron, and Hermione from Harry Potter by JK Rowling

This goes without saying. More HP books would only improve the universe, and I would love to spend more time with this amazing trio.

8. The characters in Every Day by David Levithan

cover every day

The ending of this book was strange but sweet, impossibly perfect actually, and I think it would be fascinating to see how their relationship progressed past the last pages. (I know that this one is vague, but the ending is very specific and I don’t want to spoil anything…)

9. Persis and Justen from Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

cover across a star swept sea

This book is based entirely on the dramatic irony of Persis’s secret identity as the Wild Poppy. The reveal only happens at the very end of the book, and I’m dying to see the full repercussions of her secret being exposed. (Basically, I just need all the people who underestimated her to have to eat their words…)

10. Everyone in Peace, Love and Baby Ducks by Lauren Myracle

cover peace love and baby ducks

This book is emotionally tense, with the relationships between most of the characters deteriorating before the climax. Hopefully, checking in on these characters would show some of them growing back into the closeness that they had the beginning of the story, and gaining confidence that they lacked throughout the book.

Top Ten Books I Can’t Stop Rereading

top ten tuesday

 Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week, they post a new Top Ten topic and other bloggers respond with their own lists. I take part in this meme when I have something to say for the topic and I remember what day it is.


This week’s topic is a FREEBIE, so I decided to list some of the books that I have read over and over and plan to keep rereading, no matter what age I am.

1. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner

cover queens thief covers

This series wins the title of my favorite set of books ever. The intricacy of their plots, the aliveness of the characters, the subtle fantasy elements–everything is amazing.

2. The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter

These books are perfectly ridiculous. I love the romance, the incredible friendships, the crazy plots. They still make me laugh, even the fifth time I read them.

3. The Heist Society series by Ally Carter

These are in the same vein as The Gallagher Girls, but these have a bit more class. I am absolutely in love with Hale, and the rest of the characters never fail to make me laugh.

4. The Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

These books are so freaking powerful. They combine gothic elements with paranormal with fantasy with Victorian finishing schools with romance (ahhhh!!!!!) with friendship battles–oh my god. I love these, and I really should not have read them in fourth grade (whoops).

5. Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

cover scorpio races

This book has so much emotional power over me. Puck and Sean are perfect together and their romance just develops so perfectly. The world-building and the fantasy elements work really well and even the minor characters are complex.

6. Going Underground by Susan Vaught

cover going underground

This book is the reason I get really angry during a lot of school assemblies. The romance is great, but the societal message is so powerful. If you haven’t read it, you should, and if you haven’t read anything by Susan Vaught–fix that immediately.

7. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

cover code name verity

I don’t think I knew what the phrase “burst into tears” meant until I got halfway through this book. Holy crap. If you like historical fiction, if you like friendship stories, if you like crying your heart out–read this book right now. If you don’t like any of those things–still read it. It’s that good.

8. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

cover beauty queens

This is my feminism bible. This is my humor comfort book. Societal messages alongside satire alongside fake boybands and reality TV. I love this book so much.

9. Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

I don’t read as much paranormal romance as I used to, but this series is one of my favorites in the genre. I love the world-building (so unique) and the romance (ahhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!). The end of the series gets really dark and intense, so I haven’t reread them (emotional trauma, you feel me?), but I know I will at some point.

10. The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness

How do you come up with a premise like this? It is incredible. And then the writing and the characters and the plot–oh my god. Patrick Ness, you are amazing.