A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray
Gemma Doyle, raised in India but longing to visit London, has just run off from the kind of vicious argument that you have with your mother when you are sixteen and she is ruining your life. Soon after, Mrs. Doyle dies violently, and Gemma, horrified, gets her wish: a return to England, where her father retreats into laudanum-sated grief and Gemma is sent to finishing school.
The Spence Academy for Young Ladies is a gargoyle-encrusted boarding school with the motto “Grace, Charm, and Beauty.” Or more appropriately, given Gemma’s cold reception, “Jealousy, Snobbery, and Talking About Your Supposedly Best Friend Behind Her Back.”
Burdened by guilt and the mystery surrounding her mother’s death, Gemma begins to see strange visions. She acquires a clique of her own, and during some extremely extracurricular activities with her newfound friends-after-a-fashion, she discovers that she’s a gatekeeper to another reality called the realms, in which the girls can conjure anything they can think of.
This entertaining series for older teens has all the Gothic trimmings: secret societies, old diaries, opium dens, and a wing of the school that has been off-limits since two students died in a previous generation. There’s even a hint of romance. Gemma has been followed from India by a handsome young man who keeps popping out from behind trees or pieces of furniture to deliver ominous warnings. Well, sometimes he leaves notes impaled on daggers.
Most engaging were the girls themselves and their prickly friendships. Each has secrets, and an agenda, and they resent the fact that only Gemma can get them in to this other world. All of them crave power, and the setting, just before the turn of the century, is ideal for contrasting their autonomy in the realms with the restrictions that society places on them back in the real world.
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