I began reading A Great and Terrible Beauty expecting Victorian-style dialogue and mannerisms, intermixed with bits of fantasy and magic. What I got was the repeated mention of Victorian ideals (and fashion), using modern dialogue with next-to-no fantasy or magic. Frankly, I was a little disappointed.
After my first encounter with Gemma, I was tempted to put the book down and walk away. She came across as a spoiled and self-centred juvenile who I had no interest in reading about. Fortunately, after the death of her mother, she managed to pull her head out of her ass long enough to see that the world did not in fact revolve around her. In time, her moments of immaturity grew on me as I realized it was a pretty accurate depiction of your average sixteen-year-old, and she was strong when the moment required strength from her.
Having read in the summary that Gemma "blackmails" herself and Ann into the popular clique at her new boarding school, I was looking forward to cattiness and betrayals and a general feeling of constant distrust. What I got was a "friendship" (and I'm using that term very loosely) that seemed shallow and unrealistic. Gemma is constantly being used as a pawn by Felicity to make Pippa jealous, and seems to take no issue with it. In fact, she seems to relish in the moments where Felicity chooses her over Pippa, as she delights in seeing Pippa's hurt over her best friend's betrayal. For reasons I can't fathom, Gemma decides to trust these girls enough to tell them her deepest secret - she has visions and the ability to transport them all into a different realm where whatever they can imagine will come into fruition.
When we finally get to the realms, Gemma is told she is not allowed to use her powers outside of the realms. For the longest time no real reason is given, other then the patronizing "because I said so" routine of parents, and so of course when she is pushed by her "friends" (who then seemed to be using her for access to the realms and the power it gave them) to take the magic into the real world, Gemma does so without real fear of the consequences - because they were never properly explained to her.
I did enjoy the slow pacing of the revealing of secrets, as I felt it gave me a reason to continue reading. Without the mystery surrounding the realms, and Gemma's mother's involvement, I doubt I would have kept reading, especially considering that it took almost 300 pages before the realms were presented; the lack of magic and otherworldliness was quite off-putting as I was expecting quite a bit of fantasy. I read elsewhere that the "magic of the realms teeters on the edge of becoming a metaphor for drug use" and I couldn't agree more. There were several scenes where I was expecting the girls to get caught using some substance to explain their vivid delusions, as the images that were described seemed so disjointed.
Overall I feel quite underwhelmed by this book. It took about 100 pages or so before it managed to catch most of my attention, and even then I found myself putting the book down quite frequently as other things managed to steal my attention. I did enjoy reading it, but I really don't have much to say about it, which is why it's getting 2 stars for "meh" instead of 3 for "enjoyable yet non-memorable".
A Great and Terrible Beauty could have been a great novel, but it's not. I like Libba Bray's style of writing... except that the reader isn't really given a character they can like and cheer for. The heroine, Gemma Doyle is self-centered and shallow, as are most of the the others characters. I personally think it's annoying that the book spends so much time making fun of the social norms and expectations of the Victorian Age while doing almost nothing to rise above it. The plot borrows so much from other novels and movies like The Secret Garden (even down to the ivory elephant and the self-absorbed young girl), Dead Poet's, and The Craft (one that has the power, but is secretive; one that desperately hungers for power; one that wishes she was pretty; and one that is just kinda there and annoying). Nothing in it is original, endearing, artistic, or interesting. I kept expecting the surprises in the book to be better than they were, and I was ultimately disappointed at the simplicity of the magic and plot. The author has talent, but this book does little to show it