Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty

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A Great and Terrible Beauty Summary

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A Great and Terrible Beauty (2003) by Libba Bray finds sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle coping with the mysterious death of her mother and her newfound clairvoyant powers. When her family sends her to Spence Academy for Young Ladies, the mystery deepens, as Gemma and her newfound friends discover a way to enter different worlds.

The novel opens on Gemma’s sixteenth birthday in 1895. She and her mother are in the Bombay market when a strange man and his younger brother approach them, whispering to Gemma’s mother, “Circe is near.”

Gemma is angry with her mother because she won’t allow her to go to school in London. After saying a few harsh words, Gemma runs off. Gemma then has a vision that a menacing shadow swallows a man, and her mother stabs herself with a knife. Frightened, she goes looking for her mother and finds the scene of the vision. There, her mother has died just as her vision foretold.

Following the death of her mother, Gemma’s laudanum-addicted father is unable to care for her, so her grandmother sends her to Spence, a finishing school in London. Gemma’s school roommate, Ann, is a poor orphan who is bullied by her popular classmates, Felicity and Pippa.

Felicity, Pippa, and their friends trick Gemma into going into the chapel late at night; they lock her inside. There, she meets a caped young man Kartik who has been following her. He is the younger brother from the market; the man killed by the shadow was his brother. Kartik warns her not to have any more visions. Later, she learns that he belongs to a group called Rakshana, the guardians of the realms.

As Gemma is escaping the chapel, another vision leads her to a cave. There, she finds the diary of a girl named Mary who also had visions. Mary, her friend Sarah, and Headmistress Eugenia formed a group of witches called the Order.

Gemma catches Felicity alone with a gypsy boy, but she promises not to tell. The two become friends and, along with Ann and Pippa, they decide to create their own Order. Gemma is hesitant of Felicity and Pippa, but their friendship develops more fully when Pippa, who has epilepsy, has a seizure during dance class.

The girls continue to read the diary together and learn that Mary and Sarah visited the magical realms until Sarah’s power began to fade away. In order to get Sarah’s power back, they needed to sacrifice a young gypsy girl. Mary kills the gypsy girl for the shadow, but he insists on Sarah as a sacrifice. Eugenia takes Sarah’s place. Sarah wants Mary to take her back to the realms, but Mary refuses and the East Wing catches fire during their struggle. The girls are believed to have perished in the fire.

Gemma takes Felicity, Pippa, and Ann with her into the other world; Gemma’s mother is there. She tells her about the Runes of the Oracle where the magic is stored. The girls each use the magic for different things. Ann makes herself beautiful, Pippa conjures a knight who is in love with her, and Felicity becomes a mighty huntress.

Gemma’s mother forbids Gemma from taking the magic with her back to her world, but Gemma manages to steal some. The new Order uses the magic to play pranks on other students at Spence, simultaneously creating evil in the other realms. When Gemma returns to her mother, her mother confesses that she is Mary Dowd and that the wicked Sarah is now known as “Circe.”

Sensing something is wrong in the realms, Gemma doesn’t want to take her friends back, but she relents after her friends sacrifice a deer in an attempt to go without her. In the realms again, the shadow creature attacks the girls, and Pippa falls into a frozen river during their escape. They leave her behind.

Back in their own world, they find Pippa having a seizure. Gemma goes back to the realms to rescue her. She defeats the shadow, destroys the runes, and forgives her mother for murdering the little girl. Pippa, having found her true love in the realms, decides to stay there instead of returning to her arranged marriage in the real world. She eats some magical berries that will seal her into the realms forever.

Pippa in the other world dies, and they have a funeral for her. Felicity now has visions as well.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is the first book of the Gemma Doyle Trilogy. The next two books in the series are Rebel Angels and A Sweet Far Thing.