A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle Trilogy #1)

A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle Trilogy #1)

4.5 1239
by Libba Bray

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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

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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?

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
A British girl uncovers the mystery of her mother's death -- and discovers powers she never knew she possessed -- in this engrossing, imaginative Victorian-era novel by Libba Bray.

Two months after her mother's sudden and puzzling suicide, Gemma Doyle travels from India, where she was raised, to England for her new life at an all-girls preparatory school. At Spence Academy, Gemma feels dispirited by the stringent etiquette and her classmates' cruel pecking order, but she finds herself befriended by a group of girls with aspirations of being more than "proper ladies." Aside from school troubles, Gemma is also preoccupied with nightmarish visions, and following her discovery of a long-lost diary that describes "the Order," she learns that she has supernatural abilities that link her to the spirit world, her mother, and an evil force that wants to usurp Gemma's powers. And it's almost too late before Gemma realizes that she holds the key to her own and her friends' destinies.

Weaving Merchant/Ivory-type scenes with magical turns of events, Bray's tale is hard to put down. The author's intriguing look at 19th-century society, sexuality, and teen issues makes the book a compelling read that will appeal to both history and "chick lit" fans; yet with the deft inclusion of fantastical elements, Bray takes her novel to another level that's sure to grab an even wider audience. An unconventional book that entertains to the end and stays with you long after. Shana Taylor

Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
Gemma Doyle Trilogy, #1
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)
760L (what's this?)
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

June 21, 1895

Bombay, India

"Please tell me that's not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening."

I am staring into the hissing face of a cobra. A surpris-ingly pink tongue slithers in and out of a cruel mouth while an Indian man whose eyes are the blue of blindness inclines his head toward my mother and explains in Hindi that cobras make very good eating.

My mother reaches out a white-gloved finger to stroke the snake's back. "What do you think, Gemma? Now that you're sixteen, will you be dining on cobra?"

The slithery thing makes me shudder. "I think not, thank you."

The old, blind Indian man smiles toothlessly and brings the cobra closer. It's enough to send me reeling back where I bump into a wooden stand filled with little statues of Indian deities. One of the statues, a woman who is all arms with a face bent on terror, falls to the ground. Kali, the destroyer. Lately, Mother has accused me of keeping her as my unofficial patron saint. Lately, Mother and I haven't been getting on very well. She claims it's because I've reached an impossible age. I state emphatically to anyone who will listen that it's all because she refuses to take me to London.

"I hear in London, you don't have to defang your meals first," I say. We're moving past the cobra man and into the throng of people crowding every inch of Bombay's frenzied marketplace. Mother doesn't answer but waves away an organ-grinder and his monkey. It's unbearably hot. Beneath my cotton dress and crinolines, sweat streaks down my body. The flies-my most ardent admirers-dart about my face. I swat at one of the little winged beasts, but it escapes and I can almost swear I hear it mocking me. My misery is reaching epidemic proportions.

Overhead, the clouds are thick and dark, giving warning that this is monsoon season, when floods of rain could fall from the sky in a matter of minutes. In the dusty bazaar the turbaned men chatter and squawk and bargain, lifting brightly colored silks toward us with brown, sunbaked hands. Everywhere there are carts lined with straw baskets offering every sort of ware and edible-thin, coppery vases; wooden boxes carved into intricate flower designs; and mangos ripening in the heat.

"How much farther to Mrs. Talbot's new house? Couldn't we please take a carriage?" I ask with what I hope is a noticeable annoyance.

"It's a nice day for a walk. And I'll thank you to keep a civil tone."

My annoyance has indeed been noted.

Sarita, our long-suffering housekeeper, offers pomegranates in her leathery hand. "Memsahib, these are very nice. Perhaps we will take them to your father, yes?"

If I were a good daughter, I'd bring some to my father, watch his blue eyes twinkle as he slices open the rich, red fruit, then eats the tiny seeds with a silver spoon just like a proper British gentleman.

"He'll only stain his white suit," I grumble. My mother starts to say something to me, thinks better of it, sighs-as usual. We used to go everywhere together, my mother and I-visiting ancient temples, exploring local customs, watching Hindu festivals, staying up late to see the streets bloom with candlelight. Now, she barely takes me on social calls. It's as if I'm a leper without a colony.

"He will stain his suit. He always does," I mumble in my defense, though no one is paying me a bit of attention except for the organ-grinder and his monkey. They're following my every step, hoping to amuse me for money. The high lace collar of my dress is soaked with perspiration. I long for the cool, lush green of England, which I've only read about in my grandmother's letters. Letters filled with gossip about tea dances and balls and who has scandalized whom half a world away, while I am stranded in boring, dusty India watching an organ-grinder's monkey do a juggling trick with dates, the same trick he's been performing for a year.

"Look at the monkey, memsahib. How adorable he is!" Sarita says this as if I were still three and clinging to the bottoms of her sari skirts. No one seems to understand that I am fully sixteen and want, no, need to be in London, where I can be close to the museums and the balls and men who are older than six and younger than sixty.

"Sarita, that monkey is a trained thief who will be begging for your wages in a moment," I say with a sigh. As if on cue, the furry urchin scrambles up and sits on my shoulder with his palm outstretched. "How would you like to end up in a birthday stew?" I tell him through clenched teeth. The monkey hisses. Mother grimaces at my ill manners and drops a coin in its owner's cup. The monkey grins triumphantly and leaps across my head before running away.

A vendor holds out a carved mask with snarling teeth and elephant ears. Without a word, Mother places it over her face. "Find me if you can," she says. It's a game she's played with me since I could walk-a bit of hide-and-seek meant to make me smile. A child's game.

"I see only my mother," I say, bored. "Same teeth. Same ears."

Mother gives the mask back to the vendor. I've hit her vanity, her weak point.

"And I see that turning sixteen is not very becoming to

my daughter," she says.

"Yes, I am sixteen. Sixteen. An age at which most decent girls have been sent for schooling in London." I give the word decent an extra push, hoping to appeal to some maternal sense of shame and propriety.

"This looks a bit on the green side, I think." She's peering intently at a mango. Her fruit inspection is all-consuming.

"No one tried to keep Tom imprisoned in Bombay," I say, invoking my brother's name as a last resort. "He's had four whole years there! And now he's starting at university."

"It's different for men."

"It's not fair. I'll never have a season. I'll end up a spinster with hundreds of cats who all drink milk from china bowls." I'm whining. It's unattractive, but I find I'm powerless to stop.

"I see," Mother says, finally. "Would you like to be paraded around the ballrooms of London society like some prize horse there to have its breeding capabilities evaluated? Would you still think London was so charming when you were the subject of cruel gossip for the slightest infraction of the rules? London's not as idyllic as your grandmother's letters make it out to be."

"I wouldn't know. I've never seen it."

"Gemma . . ." Mother's tone is all warning even as her smile is constant for the Indians. Mustn't let them think we British ladies are so petty as to indulge in arguments on the streets. We only discuss the weather, and when the weather is bad, we pretend not to notice.

Sarita chuckles nervously. "How is it that memsahib is now a young lady? It seems only yesterday you were in the nursery. Oh, look, dates! Your favorite." She breaks into a gap-toothed smile that makes every deeply etched wrinkle in her face come alive. It's hot and I suddenly want to scream, to run away from everything and everyone I've ever known.

"Those dates are probably rotting on the inside. Just like India."

"Gemma, that will be quite enough." Mother fixes me with her glass-green eyes. Penetrating and wise, people call them. I have the same large, upturned green eyes. The Indians say they are unsettling, disturbing. Like being watched by a ghost. Sarita smiles down at her feet, keeps her hands busy adjusting her brown sari. I feel a tinge of guilt for saying such a nasty thing about her home. Our home, though I don't really feel at home anywhere these days.

"Memsahib, you do not want to go to London. It is gray and cold and there is no ghee for bread. You wouldn't like it."

A train screams into the depot down near the glittering bay. Bombay. Good bay, it means, though I can't think of anything good about it right now. A dark plume of smoke from the train stretches up, touching the heavy clouds. Mother watches it rise.

"Yes, cold and gray." She places a hand on her throat, fingers the necklace hanging there, a small silver medallion of an all-seeing eye atop a crescent moon. A gift from a villager, Mother said. Her good-luck charm. I've never seen her without it.

Sarita puts a hand on Mother's arm. "Time to go, memsahib."

Mother pulls her gaze away from the train, drops her hand from her necklace. "Yes. Come. We'll have a lovely time at Mrs. Talbot's. I'm sure she'll have lovely cakes just for your birthday-"

A man in a white turban and thick black traveling cloak stumbles into her from behind, bumping her hard.

"A thousand pardons, honorable lady." He smiles, offers a deep bow to excuse his rudeness. When he does, he reveals a young man behind him wearing the same sort of strange cloak. For a moment, the young man and I lock eyes. He isn't much older than I am, probably seventeen if a day, with brown skin, a full mouth, and the longest eyelashes I have ever seen. I know I'm not supposed to find Indian men attractive, but I don't see many young men and I find I'm blushing in spite of myself. He breaks our gaze and cranes his neck to see over the hordes.

"You should be more careful," Sarita barks at the older man, threatening him with a blow from her arm. "You better not be a thief or you will be punished."

"No, no, memsahib, only I am terribly clumsy." He drops his smile and with it the cheerful simpleton routine. He whispers low to my mother in perfectly accented English. "Circe is near."

It makes no sense to me, just the ramblings of a very clever thief said to distract us. I start to say as much to my mother but the look of sheer panic on her face stops me cold. Her eyes are wild as she whips around and scans the crowded streets like she's looking for a lost child.

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A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle Series #1) 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1223 reviews.
C4M30.l0k1 More than 1 year ago
Really, I don't say this very often (actually, like once in a blue moon), but this book s truly a masterpiece. Completely original, and haunts you long after the last pages. Excellent for avid readers beyond their age, and even more so for those hopeless romantics and fantasy-meets-reality lovers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very remarkable from beginning to end. It is good for ages 12-college age. It is about a girl with interesting visions. She is haunted by them and in the beginning, and her mother is killed, her death somehow related to them. This leaves the girl, Gemma, with many questions. Gemma is sent to a finishing school where she meets new friends. Her and her friends recreate a secret order... This book will keep your heart pumping and you won't be able to put it down (I know because I stayed in my bedroom all day finishing it. I loved this book and really hope you read it. I know you will enjoy it! -Female, age 13
Cerulean_Notion More than 1 year ago
I've seen this series on several friends' bookshelves and finally got around to reading it myself. I wasn't disappointed; in fact, I was pleasantly surprised with this series. It has believable plot lines and ties throughout the trilogy. The characters and their developments are well-paced, believable, and appropriate for the series. The friendships are inspiring (and show the failings real life relationships can have.) Suggested for older teenagers. Honestly, a great read.
monsterofbooks More than 1 year ago
WOW! Where do I begin? The writing style is...different. It's written mostly in diary type style where it's all Gemma's point of view including the narration. At first this was really weird for me to read this type of style so I was really slow at reading it, but as the novel progresses her writing style changes. Did anyone notice that? Or was that just me? I mean read the first page and then read a page that's near the end and I think you can notice it. Anyways, theirs a reason this book is a bestseller, it's because it's a really good story and it's interesting. The writing is unique and different which sets it apart from other books. It's wonderfully described and almost instantly you can imagine the characters and the places and you really feel as if your the characters and this is happening to you. Their is many quotes in the book which I adore to death and will probably almost always treasure. Such as: "In every end, there is also a beginning.", "You mind is not a cage. It's a garden. And it requires cultivating." It's a excellent book I'm not going to lie, it can be long in parts and be slow and their wasn't enough of the mysterious young man as I would of like their to be. Also the biography on the back of the book only got my attention because of the supernatural part, if it hadn't had said that then I probably wouldn't have read it. I think even though I enjoyed this book, and it's the start of the trilogy, I will not read the sequel of it for a while. I think these book need to be taken in small portion, I don't think I could real all three of them in a week or two weeks to be honest. Also while I was reading this book I couldn't stop thinking about another book that is kind of similar to it so that really put a damper on me reading this. I have no negative things to say about this book it's simply amazing. Yes it can be slow at times, but that's pretty much it. I enjoyed it overall and hope people who haven't read this will. Or who are thinking of reading this will. My favorite character was Gemma because me and her are both very similar.
Apples_and_Parachutes More than 1 year ago
I must say, I missed a day last summer sitting on my floor, reading. I never got up to see the weather, and I just read. AGATB, the first of the Gemma Doyle series, enraptures from the first chapter. All the characters could be connected back to me, and it actually was a method of self discovery for me. Gemma's struggles seemed real and the story, though obviously fiction, seemed quite possible. I enjoyed reading AGATB because it made me think, and because every character had a secret. No one was innocent in this novel like in others, and I fould it refreshing. I would recommend this book to a random stranger on the street, I think it's that amazing. Oh, and books rarely make me cry. Every time I reread this one, I cry, because the characters grow on you.
KandyJ More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading A Great and Terrible Beauty. It took me a little while to get into the characters and the story but eventually I was sucked right in and enjoyed the story. It is not a romatical as the Twilight Series but it is a nice fantasy tail that is non-Vampire. And in this day and age that is hard to come by.
MidnightReader More than 1 year ago
I am curently reading the second book (Rebel Angles) and so far I love the books. The first was a little bit slow in the begining, although absoloutly worth continuing to read after the first few chapters. The books are not the most well known, I only recently heard about them, but they are absoloutly wonderful. Much better then the Twilight books or other books targeted for similar types of readers.
AHohn More than 1 year ago
Love Love Love the Libba Bray Novels! I was depressed after finishing the Harry Potters and Twlights and needed a good pick me up and she rescued me. Thank you for being original and visionary.
ScarletAnn More than 1 year ago
a great a terrible beauty was really great. my friends recomended it to me and we loved discussing it and the characters were unique and different than characters u would read in other books. the second book was my favorite because it all comes together like a huge mystery puzzle that u couldnt wait to see the end product. at some times its a little cheezy but stll unpredictable
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favorite books of all time! It's one of those books you will remember long after you read them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I absolutely love the sarcasm in it. It is very original, and the sex parts add color. It is not as if anything bad happens by reading those parts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved the book, but sometimes found myself wishing Emma would grow up and see the truth that was literatlly right in front of her eyes. This is a must read!
Goose-Girl More than 1 year ago
I had seen this book on the shelves of bookstores and each time i was caught by the cover. Unfortunately, that's all that caught me. the summary on the back didnt interest me enough to buy it. One day someone gave it to a friend of mine and since she didnt want to read it, and i had nothing else to read, i picked it up. Boy was i surprised! The book was incredible and definitely not what i expected. I finished it in a day or two and immediately drove the BN to pick up the second, which i read just as quickly. I waited in anticipation for the 3rd book, which was amazing too! I was so connected with the characters. i recommended it to a friend who had the same problem i had, it didnt interest her. i finally forced her to read it and she thought it was just as amazing as i did. A must read!!!!!!!
bookduck More than 1 year ago
To call A Great and Terrible Beauty a "vividly drawn portait of the Victorian age" is partially true--as far as I know, many of the social and day-to-day elements are correct. Libba Bray did her research, and I appreciate her acknowledgment of sources she found helpful in the Acknowledgments page before the beginning of the story. On the other hand, the characters do not speak in a Victorian fashion. The copy of the book I read includes an interview with Bray. One of the questions reads, "Your story is rich in Victorian period detail, yet the characters feel real and immediate, as if they were alive today. How were you able to get inside the heads of girls who lived over a hundred years ago?" Bray answers, "Uh, well....I cheated." She then goes on to describe how she mixed elements to create the atmosphere she wanted as well as a "modernity of feeling". The girls feel as if they are alive today partly because their speech is modern, and partly because, as Libba Bray says, "girls are girls, feelings are always feelings, whether it's 1895 or 2005." Sometimes I forget that people are people, even if they are historical, and that their feelings were very much like mine. I appreciate Bray's reminder of this. So, moving on, I quickly got over the modern speech within a historical setting dilemma because this book is great. Gemma has an intelligent sense of humor (there are many opportunities to laugh to yourself, or with others (however you like to laugh) while reading this book), and she is a strong character as well. Her first person, present tense narration was easy to connect to. The plot is full of Gothic elements--a closed East Wing, gypsies, and a mysterious diary. It's good fun. The mysteries within the story are also intriguing. The real surprise, though, is how Bray manages to make the Victorian prospects of the girls scarier than the darker supernatural elements of the story. If you do read this book--which you should--I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy with a Readers Circle section at the end. This is a book that leaves one with much to think about, and the discussion questions coupled with the Q&A section with Libba Bray are interesting.
BLAIR44 More than 1 year ago
A Great and Teribble Beauty is one of the best books i have ever read. It keeps you wanting more and more at the end of the book. I ofton found myself up and reading at three in the morning just to see what would happen next. I would recommend this book to anybody who enjoys exitement.
ashley_42 More than 1 year ago
By looking at it I had know idea. But now i'm so happy i've read this series! Its amazing in every way i love this book. I Love Kartik I hate Circe. this book is one of a kind. i hundred percent recommend it!
Nicki0527 More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up in the library on Friday at noon and was done by 2 am Sunday, i could not put the book down. I must admit that I got angry at the book and almost threw it when Gemma made a choice I knew would end with a bad result but i picked it back up and started reading within seconds of putting it down. The book leaves you on the edge of your seat flipping page after page to see what will come next. I have recommended it to my best friends and recommended it to anyone!
WingdReader6 More than 1 year ago
I truly fell in love with this book. I love the time era it is placed in. I love the way they talk and acted then. The main character also reminds me of my best friend witch coincidentally is the one who let me know about this book. The bonds made and broke and lessons learned reading this book are so great. A great book for rainy day reading or to have a discussion about it.
Sadia More than 1 year ago
Magical, lovely, and a good read! A beautifully written story about love, friendship, and forgiveness.
AlanaWithLove More than 1 year ago
I love this book but I am also fascinated with this time period. For most this book is boring at the beggining and the end is great. Keep reading! The series as a whole is amazing, espically the last one. It takes on a Lord of the Flies like aspect in some ways but also brims with turn of the century society plus girls who want to break rules and magic.
h_lizz-witt More than 1 year ago
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray is a captivating story about a girl, Gemma Doyle, who is thrown into an unknown world of Victorian age prep school girls and a magic world called ¿the Realm¿. During Gemma¿s time in the Spence Academy, she learns the haunting secrets of her mother¿s past and how cruel teenage girls can be. She, and her new friends Felicity, Pippa, and Ann, have to learn the difference between the fine line of something beautiful and something terrible. With every power and responsibility, there is a consequence of one¿s actions. A Great and terrible Beauty has ups and downs, twists and turns, and always keeps the reader interested.

Bray has not only constructed a great plot, but has woven strong characters and various themes of where a woman¿s place in society is and how hard it is for a girl to fit in with her peers. Gemma¿s brother, Tom, represents the entire Victorian society by telling her, ¿A man wants a woman that makes life easy for him¿ But above all, she should keep his name above scandal and never draw attention to herself¿(Bray 27). Gemma and her friends rebel against this idea. They have strong personalities that do not reflect an average girl in this era. They act as a part of the secret society of women in the Realm, called the Order. The Rakshana is a group of men, which rely on the women, but constantly try to steal the power away from them. This shows the fear the Rakshana have for women that are as powerful or more powerful than them. Gemma comes into the Spence Academy as a new girl, not knowing what to expect. The wild girls that appeared docile, held captive in corsets and petticoats, is just as vicious as a wild animal in India. They may not have claws, but their words will hurt twice as bad and force you to act in ways you never thought possible. It shows the extremes a girl goes through to be accepted. Gemma tries to prove she is worthy of being friends with Felicity and Pippa, the popular girls at Spence, and ends up being locked in the church sanctuary while trying to steal communion wine.

Throughout this story, these girls learn life lessons and grow step by step into young women. They experience many trials and tribulations together and become great friends, or do they? I believe that every teenage girl should read this book. All of these elements make this a true coming of age story.
chelseabee More than 1 year ago
Libba Bray is an excellent writer, and I have read this book as well as the other two in the Gemma Doyle trilogy (which I also recommend) countless times. There are many great themes presented throughout the story. The book is filled with action, dreams, and fantasy while including the realities of life and the coming of age. I especially recommend this for teenage girls because most can relate to what at least one character is facing. One thing I really loved about this trilogy is that the characters are flawed. There are still heroines and heroes, but they are imperfect, which adds to the realism of the story because humans are not perfect. Anyways, I didn't mean for this to be a long and detailed review. I just hope everyone takes the chance to read A Great and Terrible Beauty and the other books in the trilogy because they are all absolutely brilliant.
Frozen_Tears More than 1 year ago
Takes place in turn of the century England, with main characters who desperatly crave for change, but are denied it by scoiety. This book expolres romance that is forbidden, fantasy, suspence that gives you goose-bumps, and what it means to be yourself. I reccommend it to anyone looking for a story that will suck you in and not let you go until you are finished.
cmor4les More than 1 year ago
First of all, there are not enough period books for younger readers. This book was great. I liked all of the characters and found the subtle commentary to be important without being preachy. Each girl has something that could make them tragic characters, but they are survivors and struggle through ordinary issues like most young girls would at their age. Gemma, my favorite character, is not only smart but cheeky, without being nasty.

Recommended read for young girls.
Guest More than 1 year ago
From the moment my eyes laid sight on the first word, I was hooked. This story of a girl named Gemma can realate to any young girl. The story itself is amazing and fun. There is not one time that i wanted to stop reading. I remember that after i read the first chapter i never wanted the book to end. It's a fast read because you cant not stop reading but it is amazing. A must read.