Improved with a re-read
(General disclaimer: This is the third-and-a-halfth time I’ve read this book, so this review is the result of several years’ worth of musings on Gemma Doyle and her story, an attempt to step away from my initial impressions and think more critically.)
I was thirteen when I first read this book. A Great and Terrible Beauty was probably the first true “young adult” novel I read, aside from Meg Cabot. I was enthralled with this novel at the time. Back in those ancient days, paranormal fiction for young adults wasn’t the monolith that it is today—Twilight was still in its infancy. (Vampires? Bah, who wants to read about those guys?) Libba Bray’s dark, sensual treatment of magic was something I, as a middle-schooler, had never read before, or honestly thought possible. I also have to admit that the attraction between Kartik and Gemma was a bit more risque that I was used to. Neither Laura Ingalls Wilder or J.R.R. Tolkien wrote scenes that featured racy, sexual dreams. Hah! I was only thirteen, guys; give me a break.
Fast forward a few years, and I finally get my hands on a copy of Rebel Angels, the sequel. I attempt to re-read A Great and Terrible Beauty as a warm-up. To my surprise, I find that I have no patience for this book. Gemma seems to be a weak, easily-led child, whose only goal is to placate her newfound friends in hopes that they stick around. I couldn’t stand her. I could only get halfway through before I chucked my copy into my closet, never to see the light of day. (Someone had spoiled the end of the series for me long, long ago, so I saw no need to stick things out to the end.)
Reading this now, I find that (once again), my opinion of Gemma has shifted. This is very much a character-driven novel, and your enjoyment of this will depend entirely on how you feel about Gemma and her club. While I still maintain that Gemma’s new friends—Felicity, Pippa, and Ann—only hang out with her because she has the ability to take them to the Realms, I no longer believe that Gemma is a weak person. Yes, the other girls are using her, and no, their relationship is not entirely genuine. But I think Gemma understands that, and in a small way, she uses the other girls, too. Is Gemma Doyle a likable, relatable character? No. However, she is a well-rounded, proactive character, and that counts for something.
In this re-read, I found that, rather than appreciating the steamy scenes, I liked that there were so few of them. A Great and Terrible Beauty was published in 2003, pre-Twilight, before young adult fiction got “big”, before it became impossible to find a paranormal novel that doesn’t contain a love triangle, instalove, or some disgusting perpetuation of rape culture (or possibly all three). Libba Bray’s focus is not on Gemma’s romance with Kartik at all. They rarely interact, and most scenes that contain Kartik are dreamscapes. Gemma is attracted to him, and we assume that he’s attracted to her, but romance is not the main point of this novel. In future novels, it may become more prominent, but at this point, Gemma is focused on her magic and what that means for her future.
I also found Bray’s treatment of magic and the paranormal to be refreshing. Currently, “paranormal” is synonymous with vampires/ghosts/banshees/angels/blabbity-blah. The concept of raw magic, without a name or a specific “species” wielding it, is so much more appealing to me. Couple that magic with a lush, well-detailed historical setting, and you have the premise for a very good book. And this author, with her strong, well-constructed prose, pulled it off quite well.
In conclusion and after almost four years’ worth of reflection, I’ve formed a solid opinion on this book. A Great and Terrible Beauty is worth reading. In the nearly ten years since it’s been published, the world of young adult paranormal fiction has seen a complete evolution, and as a reader who’s actually taken the time to immerse herself in the newer contributions the genre, I appreciate this book a lot (perhaps more than it deserves).
I have to wonder if, maybe, had Stephenie Meyer not arrived on stage two years after this novel’s publication, A Great and Terrible Beauty would not seem like such an anomaly in the genre.