I recently revisited this series as part of the Frayed Bunny Wicked Readathon, and it was so nice to come back to an old favorite. I am going to gush for ages about this in a moment, so let’s just pause for a quick description and a super atmospheric quote!
About A Great and Terrible Beauty
It’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?
“Shall I tell you a story? A new and terrible one? A ghost story? Are you ready? Shall I begin? Once upon a time there were four girls. One was pretty. One was clever. One charming, and one…one was mysterious. But they were all damaged, you see. Something not right about the lot of them. Bad blood. Big dreams. Oh, I left that part out. Sorry, that should have come before. They were all dreamers, these girls. One by one, night after night, the girls came together. And they sinned. Do you know what that sin was? … Their sin was that they believed. Believed they could be different. Special. They believed they could change what they were–damaged, unloved. Cast-off things. They would be alive, adored, needed. Necessary.”
This is one of my ALL TIME favorite series, and one I feel is SO underrated. It was first published in 2003, so its definitely time to bring this incredible series back into the spotlight! I first read AGaTB before the rest of the series had even released, and I remember excited trips to the bookstore to get the sequels! I have reread the whole trilogy every few years since. I will forewarn that this series does read like it was written in 2003, before YA got the epic overhaul we have seen in the last decade. Regardless, it holds up and tells a better story than much of what I have read in more recent years.
The tale begins when Gemma’s mother is murdered in the streets of India on Gemma’s 16th birthday. Devestated, the whole family packs up and returns to London to the home of Gemma’s paternal grandmother. Her brother, Nathan, is a medical student who wants only to keep the family’s reputation intact and not let the “scandal” of their mother’s death upset things. Their father has drowned his sorrows in laudanum and, as a result, developed an opium addiction. It is decided that Gemma is best shipped off to boarding school as Spence’s Academy – the same school her mother attended.
Once at school, Gemma finds herself increasingly chafed by the strict atmosphere and high expectations, and at the idea of her only worth being as a society wife. She fosters a friendship of sorts with resident Queen Bee, Felicity, her beautiful best friend Pippa, and (at Gemma’s insistence) her charity-case roommate Anne.
Gemma Doyle is the main character in the series, and our narrator throughout. Raised in India with her mother, father, and brother, she spent the first 16 years of her life in a much more laid-back and far less restrictive atmosphere. Upon her mother’s death, the family moves back to London and Gemma is enrolled in finishing school. The high expectations and tight restrictions chafe at her, especially since she was always allowed to think creatively and speak openly until now. Even more so, she doesn’t want to fit in, and the idea of becoming a meek, unobtrusive, society wife is abhorrent to her.
Felicity is the spoiled, entitled, mean girl of the group, but one who decides Gemma is interesting enough to take into her group. While she starts off as the sort of villain, her hard exterior begins to crack and a genuine bond forms within the foursome. Her life is nowhere near as perfect as she presents it to be, however, and we discover some pretty heartbreaking things in her backstory as the series progresses.
Pippa is stunningly beautiful and already engaged to be married upon completion of her education. While made out to be somewhat of an airhead, she really is just trying to make her life better the only way she knows how; by becoming the trophy wife everyone expects her to be.
Anne is Gemma’s roommate and the definite outcast of the group. Heavyset, quiet, and poor, Anne’s education is being funded by her aunt and uncle (who took her in after her parents’ deaths), with their intention being she will return to raise their children as their governess. Completely cowed thanks to constant bullying, she is the butt of every joke and always ridiculed. She does possess a beautiful singing voice, something that is not nurtured as it is an unneeded skill as a governess.
Fans of Libba Bray’s Diviners series will want to check this out, as it belongs to the same universe (in fact, some of the characters from this series make a brief cameo appearance in Lair of Dreams). Set in a Victorian England, we also see a teeny bit of India, as well as a magic realm that is very dreamlike and fantastical. I also HIGHLY recommend this for anyone who loved The Infernal Devices, as it has a very similar vibe!