Literary Criticism and Significance

A Great and Terrible Beauty received positive reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist, but it was not widely reviewed by other important reviewers. Most critics appreciate the way Libby Bray melds elements of Gothic, fantasy, and boarding school genres in fairly equal proportions, with a touch of romance added in as well. The result is a unique and generally compelling mix of forms.

However, Bray’s choice to juggle so many elements leaves her with limited time to devote to each. This leaves some elements of the story feeling underdeveloped. At times, to the detriment of the novel, Bray allows Gemma’s attention to fix on schoolgirl arguments while life-and-death questions about murders and her mother’s identity hang in the balance. Similarly, the all-male group, the Rakshana, seems to exist largely to place a romantic interest in the story. The Order, too, is only fuzzily developed, and Bray gives little attention to developing the group’s traditions or history. A reviewer on the Tiny Little Reading Room blog comments:

I'm not sure that I was ever really convinced of how the Order came to be and why Gemma was the missing link.

The fact that Bray never fully realizes this plot point is partly defensible because, within the world of the novel, the Order is no longer active. Gemma only learns about it through diaries, rumors, letters, and half-truths. However, the criticism stands, and most readers would probably like to learn more about Gemma’s position as the chosen one whose power may someday restore the Order to its former glory.

Some readers may find it jarring to see twenty-first-century values overlaid on a Victorian background, but most critics seem willing to accept this element of the novel. Nora Piehl of notes that Gemma “seems like a twenty-first-century girl dropped into 1895” but goes on to say that

that’s not a long as readers don’t expect historical and cultural accuracy from the novel.

Because the book is a Gothic novel with magical elements, this is a reasonable attitude. Unlike some more serious historical genres, the Gothic tradition has long included titles that manipulate historical reality for the sake of telling a compelling story. Indeed, for many readers in the modern day, Gemma’s unrealistic attitudes and personality may make her more broadly appealing.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is the first book of a trilogy starring Gemma Doyle. The two follow-up novels are Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing.