Fitting in at a new school is not the easiest of tasks, and horrific visions of another world and your dead mother are the opposite of helpful. Shipped off from her home in colonial India to an English finishing school, Gemma Doyle will have to struggle with guilt over her mother's death, Victorian social expectations for young women, making friends, her absymal knowledge of French and a handful of secret societies struggling for control of the Realms, a magical land to which only Gemma has access. But maybe Spence Academy is just the right place to begin to understand her budding powers...
TL;DR: A Great and Terrible Beauty is a very entertaining read about teenage witches with a well-fleshed out female main character. It also features way less romance than YA novel usually do. Yay!
The worldbuilding seems interesting, but is not explored thoroughly.
It has some rather sexist tropes commonly associated with schoolgirls and depicts Rromani people in a disgustingly racist fashion.
The story was nice, although not spectacularly innovative and fairly predictable at times. It focused a lot more on friendship and Gemma's exploration of the Realms and her powers than on romance, so I was pleasantly surprised. Too often in female-led novels romance seems to swallow up the plot, especially in YA.
The plot used various tropes that should have died long ago. I especially wanted to hit my head against a wall at the beginning, with the whole “queen bee mistreats poor protagonist but then they're bff” plot. It's just so overdone and I'm tired of catty female friendships. Especially at the beginning, there is literally no reason for them to be friends other than blackmailing, although of course later on they become a group of fire-forged friends (well, not completely, but at least they care about each other).
I am also tired of female protagonists refusing their first friend because they're afraid being seen with them will condemn them to perpetual unpopularity. I say female specifically because nobody would have even imagined, say, Harry Potter ditching Ron Weasley to make a good impression on Draco Malfoy, but with female characters it's the standard. Maybe I'm just bothered because I was (still am) the annoying girl with no friends who gets ditched on a regular basis.
But what takes the crown of tropes to kill with fire is the girl who wants power getting corrupted by the antagonist. Can we stop punishing women for wanting power? Both Ann and Pippa could have been convinced that Gemma was trying to keep them from the Realms for selfish reasons. Pippa is also depicted from the get-go as far more hostile towards Gemma than Felicity, but of course it's the latter that gets corrupted. Would it have made so much less sense to have Pippa being convinced by her shining knight that Gemma wants to keep them from being together?
I didn't care much for the Order, but it's due to personal taste: organised witchcraft with formal training isn't really my thing.
The novel ended with a revelation and a plot-twist. The former was not surprising at all, the latter was a bit more shocking, although I felt more sadness than shock over it, and I'd say that was the intended reaction.
The style was clear and very descriptive, with many lyrical passages. Some sequences could have been cut a bit shorter and there were a few errors handling background characters (e.g. girls speaking after exiting a room), but it was not too disruptive of the flow. The book was a light enjoyable read.
Gemma was an extremely well-rounded and realistic character, and I fell in love with her straight away. The only point where her characterisation wavered was when she decided to bring magic in the real world. She had good reasons to do so, and I didn't even think it strange while reading because it doesn't completely break away with her character, but thinking about it it would have also made sense for her to obey her mother, as she blames herself and her misbehaviour for the woman's death.
The other three girls started as a bit of a stereotype, but were fleshed out over the course of the novel. Felicity was developed a lot more than the other two, but Ann and Pippa were still distinct characters. [spoiler] Pippa however remained criminally underdeveloped, considering she won't appear in the following books (not as her human self, at least).[/spoiler]
Kartik, Gemma's love interest, was not really fleshed out in this book, although I ended up enjoying his character a lot through extensive head-canoning. At first he was way too controlling for my tastes, but the confrontation after the medium night showed very well that he was just as bewildered as Gemma, and her actions shifted the power balance a lot. I am still not sure their relationship will ever be healthy, though. I hope he'll be developed further in later books.
Other characters were just generally forgettable, including free-spirited teacher Ms. Moore, whom I found unbelievably boring.
The Realms were one of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel. We only saw glimpses of them, since our main characters didn't explore further than the garden, but we began to learn some of their rules. For me it was extremely interesting how they are sort of a mix between “domesticated fairy-land”: the Order controls the magic in the Runes, but the Realms and their inhabitants can still pose a danger at times. It was far more interesting than the “stepping stone to the other world” side of it. At times the two aspects clashed a bit, in my opinion.
The rules of magic were not stated, there might not even be any other than the fact that magic originates in the Realms.
I don't know how accurate the portrayal of Victorian England was, and frankly I wish the author would have devoted more time to exploring the magical lands instead of real life drama.
As already stated, there were a plethora of sexist tropes of the “catty schoolgirls” variant. Other than that, Kartik was called exotic with an appalling frequency, which also makes no sense in context since Gemma is narrating in first person and I'd wager she's seen more Indian men than British ones, as she's lived in India her whole life.
Many girls at Spence have viciously classist opinions of Ann, who can only attend thanks to a scholarship, but this is called out in-story.
What is never called out in-story is the girls' rampant anti-ziganism. There is a Rromani settlement near the school, and the girls live in constant fear that they'll be attacked. The only woman of the group we see is an old clairvoyant that everyone thinks is not completely right in the head. The men are presented as threatening and sexually aggressive towards the girls (Gemma & friends only avoid assault thanks to Kartik). The depiction is very negative and stereotyped and, given how pervasive anti-Rromani sentiment is in Europe right now, it's awful to read a portrait like this. I don't care if the girls' fear is historically accurate, I don't give a damn I've seen too many people evicted, killed, burned alive to prioritise “historical accuracy” (and anyway it was completely unnecessary and gross that the Rromani's behaviour met the girls negative expectations).