by Libba Bray
"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?" - from the website of Libba Bray
Gemma Doyle's story spins on from the boarding school called Spence, sending her through London ballrooms, opera houses, opium dens, slums, and far into the "spirit world" called the Realms. She experiences love, deep-rooted friendship, intense heartbreak, and takes on a burden far too great for one so young. The reader grows with her, learning from her mistakes and triumphs, and watches as she matures and ultimately makes incredibly tough decisions for the good of those under her care.
How it found me
I discovered the first book, A Great and Terrible Beauty, when I was in the sixth grade and going through a period of intense bullying and depression. As I scanned the shelves of the school library, I saw dark red and black, and a most intriguing title. Then, the cover sealed the deal as it is beyond gorgeous. It features an unconventional-looking woman peeking over her shoulder, clothed in a chemise and a corset; she was arresting. I checked it out, cracked it open during my next class (I know, what a rebel), and I never looked back.
I guess you could say, this is when my journey into young adult fiction truly began. I definitely "came of age" while reading these books. Looking back, this was the first book (or series, rather) that truly introduced me to historical fiction, particularly that of the Victorian-British variety. It sparked my obsession with corsets and old-timey ways of dressing—seriously, check out my Pinterest fashion boards—as well as everything about the culture.
In many series, minor characters are just that. Minor. They're meant to support the protagonist and prop them up along their journey, but in Libba's works, they absolutely shine. I related to Ann, one of Gemma's best friends, on a deep level, and Felicity made me feel just as daring and alive as she made Gemma feel. Each is rich, multi-leveled, and each grows and changes in some way over the course of the series, laying their own unique paths.
The themes of the book, too, are ones that I had yet to encounter in many ways, and ones that helped me see truth and find empathy in my own life.
(SERIOUS SPOILERS IN THE NEXT SECTION)
Gemma's journey starts with dealing with the violent death of her mother. As she grieved, I grieved my grandfather who'd recently passed. As she goes on through the series, Gemma is pushed through trial after trial. The drug and laudanum addiction of her father, the apathy of her family members, the cruelty and rejection of her peers, the loss of a once-dear teacher, the loss and betrayal of a friend, and finally, the still-painful-to-remember loss of Kartik in the very end.
This is not even to mention Ann and her fight to be seen and heard. She goes through bullying, roadblocks thrown in her way at every turn until the very end in which she starts to succumb to a life of silence, as if becoming a part of the walls surrounding her. Nor does this mention Felicity who, in a sickening turn, is revealed to have been molested by her father for years as a child, and who was ignored and betrayed by her own mother.
(SPOILERS ARE OVER)
At each turn, Libba treats these deeply painful and relevant issues with the care and respect due to them. The reader cannot help but feel exactly as the characters are feeling, painted as their experiences are by her brush. In addition, she crafted a world that felt in no way forced or interrupted by modern lingo or facts.
The most standout element of this trilogy is, by far, the vivid description and setting. The first book's title, A Great and Terrible Beauty, is incredibly fitting when it comes to the characters of the novel, especially those of the Realms. From mermaids to forest folk to the dreaded Poppy Warriors (those will give you nightmares), each magical being gives off a sense of mixed wonder and unease. In the Winterlands, the figures are particularly gruesome and twisted, and I'll be the first to confess that I had to leave the light on for a few nights when I was reading the last book originally.
My final word is this: when you read Gemma Doyle's story, you are reading by the light of a candle, surrounded by dark wood and rich tapestry, while wrapped gently in a lace-edged dressing gown. Your heart will soar and stutter, your hands will shake. You will have to muffle the sounds of your delight and horror in turn, and you will never forget these books.
10 out of 10 Magpies