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
Despite having argued long and hard to be allowed to go to London, the Gemma Doyle that arrives on the doorstep of the city's fashionable Spence Academy is not the discontented teenager from Bombay who had her hopes set on the big city. Mourning the tragic death of her mother, she is unable tell anyone the truth. Saddened by her father's retreat into laudanum and her oh-so-proper brother's insistence that she be the prim Victorian miss that she is not, Gemma despairs of fitting in. Her role as an outsider seems assured when beautiful Pippa and sophisticated Felicity lump her with her roommate, Ann, a scholarship student. To top it off, one of the mysterious men present when her mother died seems to be following her. Her bleak prospects change when she is led to the diary of Mary Dowd, a former Spence girl who penetrated the secrets of The Realm that now link Gemma, her mother, Felicity, Ann, and Pippa with a life and death struggle. This classic boarding school drama with gothic tones deals with real issuesa woman's place, the question of self-determinism, the impact on young lives of a lack of parental love and attentionwithin an excitingly supernatural framework. Plot, setting, and characterization are all strong. Questions of life, love, maturity, responsibility, and the harrowing nature of choices are seamlessly worked into a compulsively readable story, open ended enough to hint at the possibility of a sequel. Soundly researched and credible, this exhilarating and thought-provoking read is for the junior high level up, especially for girls who have enjoyed Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza series and are ready for something a bit more challenging and mature. VOYA Codes: 4Q 3P SA/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2004, Delacorte, 416p., and PLB Ages 15 to Adult.
To quote the review of the hardcover in KLIATT, January 2004: The cover is compelling: a photograph of the back of a young woman dressed in old-fashioned corsets. It is historical fiction, perhaps better described as Gothic fiction. The time is 1895; the action begins in India, then continues in England at a select school for girls. The narrator is Gemma, a 16-year-old who abruptly must leave India with her opium-addicted father after the murder of her mother. This murder begins the story, and it is shrouded in strange occurrences that hint of the occult. When Gemma is delivered to the school and meets her roommate and the other girls in her class, the story takes on some of the familiar themes of school stories: new girl horrors, cliques of friends, pressure to conform, sneaking about after hours, secret societies. Gemma and a small group of girls capitalize on Gemma's strange gifts to connect them to a spirit world, and for Gemma the most precious connection is with her dead mother. It turns out the mother once was a student at this school, that strange deaths happened at the school while she was there, and that the gift Gemma has seems to have come to her from her mother. The plight of young women at that time is most acutely felt in one friend of Gemma's, Pippa, a beautiful girl whose greedy parents are trying to marry her off to the richest man they can find, all the while hiding her epilepsy. There is much that is appealing in this story. It reads like an adult novel, except that the characters are teenagers; the character development and vocabulary are rich and meaty. A mysterious young man, present at the death of Gemma's mother in India, and now close by the school where Gemma isenrolled in England, provides added intrigue. Bray is totally successful in placing her readers in the confinement of Victorian England and also in the freedom of the strange spirit world Gemma finds. (An ALA Best Book for YAs.) KLIATT Codes: JS*Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2003, Random House, Delacorte, 403p., Ages 12 to 18.
Gr 9 Up-An interesting combination of fantasy, light horror, and historical fiction, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure. On her 16th birthday, Gemma Doyle fights with her mother. She wants to leave India where her family is living, runs off when her mother refuses to send her to London to school, has a dreadful vision and witnesses her mother's death. Two months later, Gemma is enrolled in London's Spence School, still troubled by visions, and unable to share her grief and guilt over her loss. She gradually learns to control her vision and enter the "realms" where magical powers can make anything happen and where her mother waits to instruct her. Gradually she and her new friends learn about the Order, an ancient group of women who maintained the realms and regulated their power, and how two students unleashed an evil creature from the realms by killing a Gypsy girl. Gemma uncovers her mother's connection to those events and learns what she now must do. The fantasy element is obvious, and the boarding-school setting gives a glimpse into a time when girls were taught gentility and the importance of appearances. The author also makes a point about the position of women in Victorian society. Bray's characters are types-Felicity, clever and powerful; Ann, plain and timid; Pippa, beautiful and occasionally thoughtless; Gemma, spirited and chafing under society's rules-but not offensively so, and they do change as the story progresses. The ending leaves open the likelihood of a sequel. Recommend this to fantasy fans who also like Sherlock Holmes or Mary Russell.-Lisa Prolman, Greenfield Public Library, MA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Had Gemma but known what occult horrors would await her, would she still have wanted to leave India? Sixteen-year-old Gemma is sent to her long-desired London when her mother commits suicide. In a terrifying vision, she sees her mother attacked by a vile supernatural force. Would revelation of her own strange mental powers cause more scandal than her mother's outre death? A sexy but suspicious young man has followed Gemma from India, and cryptically warns her to muffle her visions. Such constraint seems the goal of Gemma's proper finishing school as well. With corsets, deportment lessons, and rules, Spence Academy shapes prim young ladies. But the seemingly proper girls of Spence reveal various sexualities, passions, and hopes that strain the seams of their strict Victorian education. Mysterious continued visions, dark family secrets, and a long-lost diary thrust Gemma and her classmates back into the horrors that followed her from India. A Gothic touched by modern conceptions of adolescence, shivery with both passion and terror. (Fiction. YA)
A delicious, elegant gothic.”—PW, Starred
“A Gothic novel touched by modern conceptions of adolescence, shivery with both passion and terror.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A true boarding-school drama, full of cattiness, Victorian repression, and steamy schoolgirl dreams of being ravished by virile gypsies.”—The Bulletin, Recommended
"This classic boarding school drama with gothic tones deals with real issues . . . a compulsively readable story." VOYA
"[An] engrossing, imaginative Victorian-era novel . . . An unconventional book that entertains to the end and stays with you long after." BN.com
“A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy . . . an impressive first book in what should prove to be a fascinating trilogy.”
“An interesting combination of fantasy, light horror, and historical fiction, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure…Recommend this to fantasy fans who also like Sherlock Holmes or Mary Russell.”
—School Library Journal
“There’s no doubt the mystical elements, along with a touch of forbidden romance, will draw a large, enthusiastic audience.” —Booklist
A New York Times Bestseller
A Publishers Weekly Bestseller
A Book Sense Bestseller
BBYA (ALA/YALSA Best Book for Young Adults)
Iowa High School Book Award
Garden State Teen Book Award
Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Award