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Monday, September 5, 2011

"A Great and Terrible Beauty" by Libba Bray

In my research of literary agents, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray came up several times, always in a good light.  Many internet reviews recommend it.  So, because of the build-up, I felt my disappointment quite strongly.  It's the story of Gemma, an English girl raised in India, who goes back to a Victorian boarding school after her mother's mysterious death and the onset of her own strange visions.  There she struggles to find her place and learn about the magic of "The Realms."   

One of my pet peeves in the fantasy genre is unclear, inconsistent, corny, or overly powerful magic.  This had it all.  The many mentions of "The Order" and "The Realms" felt almost spoof-like in their grandeur, especially since I never got a handle on what the Order did or what exactly the Realms were.   Because of this hazy magic, I didn't even really understand what happened in the end, and I didn't care enough to re-read.

I found most of the characters unsympathetic.  I sort of liked Gemma, when she was being spunky, but she was often whiny, and made very dumb decisions.  I really didn't like her friends.  They were by turns shallow or cruel.  They got greedy and betrayed her toward the end, yet that didn't seem to change their strange friendship.  Her lustful dreams and possible romance with Kartik felt tacked-on.  I most liked the one kind teacher, who was dismissed because of the irresponsibility and selfishness of the girls.    

The anachronistic language bothered me.  I don't have a problem with modernizing speech in historical fiction or fantasy, as long as it stays neutral and doesn't get slangy or too modern.  If you try to write it "accurately," it sounds stilted and pushes the reader out of the story.   This balance can be hard to find, but your handsome knight shouldn't call his squire "bro."  Nor should he boast that his steed is faster than a speeding bullet.  Libba Bray didn't go quite that far in A Great and Terrible Beauty, but many phrases and ideas felt too modern.  I believe that was intentional, but it really didn't work or me.

And seriously, who wants to read a book written entirely in present tense?  I've read about three, and hated the gimmick every time.  I admit that Bray does quite a good job of it, and I eventually got so I could ignore it, but…why do it?  What does it add to the story?  And can whatever benefit possibly outweigh the annoyance readers feel?          

I did enjoy some of the social commentary about the inequality and hypocrisy of Victorian (and other) society, and the horror of facing your own future as the meek, speak-only-when-spoken-to property of your husband.  Some of the commentary got pretty heavy-handed, but it was still thought-provoking.

The historical details and interesting settings, along with the always-entertaining boarding school power struggles, satisfied me enough that I kept reading, but it felt a bit like a chore.

My rating:  2+

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