A Great and Terrible Beauty
Delacorte, 2005 (2003)
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Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
A Great and Terrible Beauty
reminded me of Frances Hodgson Burnett's
The Secret Garden
, but with a strong infusion of dark, otherworldly magic that at times borders on horror. It begins in India, where sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle is having a typical teen tantrum because of her mother's refusal to send her back to England.
emma's life falls apart after a dark-cloaked, turbaned man bumps into Virginia Doyle, warning her that '
Circe is near
'. Virginia gives Gemma '
a small silver medallion of an all-seeing eye atop a crescent moon
', sends her home, and faces her fate. Afterwards, Gemma can't forgive herself for the fact that her last words to her mother were cruel ones. She gets her wish to return to England, where she's enrolled at Spence Academy, a boarding school for young ladies. Gemma is followed there by Kartik, a handsome Indian youth, the younger brother of the turbaned man. He warns her to avoid visions (she's had a few) and tells her he's of the
, guardians of the
. At Spence, Gemma's homely room-mate Ann is despised and bullied as a scholarship student, and there are the usual cliques and pecking order maneuvring amongst the young women. The spirited Gemma toughs it out and eventually establishes a foursome - herself and downtrodden Ann, strong Felicity, and '
n one of Gemma's visions, a small girl leads her to the diary of an ex-Spence student named Mary Dowd. In it, Mary mentions her friend Sarah, the
, and magical access to the
. An engaging art teacher takes the girls to see pictographs in a cave on the academy grounds, and also speaks of the
. Gemma and friends decide to establish '
the Order, reborn
'. There are encounters with gypsies and regular readings of Mary Dowd's diary, whose entries grow darker as Sarah persuades her friend to act against her own conscience. And Gemma discovers that she has the power to enter the
(where wishes become reality), to take her friends with her, and to bring the magic back into the real world (though she is warned strongly against this). Of course, Gemma gives in to temptation - pressed hard by peers who are unhappy with their lives - and of course things start to go very badly wrong. The girls are endangered and Gemma discovers shocking truths about her own background.
Great and Terrible Beauty
is a wonderful, magical story portraying a time when young women were '
Hollow vessels of girls to be rinsed of our own ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with the cool, tepid water of gracious compliance.
' No wonder they were ready to fall to dark magic. All four dream of different lives, and can't bear to let go of their dreams. I wanted more as soon as I finished the last sentence of this story, and was delighted to have the sequel,
, waiting on my book pile.
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