A Great and Terrible Beauty

Common Sense Media says

Engaging start to bestselling Gemma Doyle trilogy.





What parents need to know

Positive messages

 As the girls become friends, they learn about each other's struggles. On the negative side, book characters invoke negative stereotypes of Gypies, suggesting they are dangerous and "filthy thieves." 

Positive role models

The book includes both negative and positive role models. On the one hand, Felicity and Pippa are mean to Ann, playing pranks, putting her down, and falsely accusing her of stealing. They break rules, try to manipulate adults, and exclude other students from their group. They prefer to live in a fantasy world and ignore warnings about using their power in real life. They make mischief with this power rather than changing anything for good.  Pippa is insensitive. The girls blame their teacher for corrupting them, to deflect getting in trouble. Felicity seeks her own power, accusing Gemma of wanting the realms all to herself. On the positive side, the girls chafe against the restricted gender roles and societal expectations in the late 1800s. Pippa worries they'll become "living ghosts, haunting each other with what could be." Gemma insists her unpopular friend be included in the clique. Gemma comes to accept her mother's death and take control of her own destiny.


A dark shape devours a man. To avoid being devoured as well, Gemma's mother commits suicide by stabbing herself with a knife. When Gemma sees her mother's body, "a deep red pool of blood widens and flows beneath her lifeless body." A decaying creature with a skeletal face and snake hair chases Gemma. Pippa would rather die than face an arranged marriage with a 50-year-old. Ann cuts herself. Felicity slaps Pippa in the face. Two girls are killed in a mysterious fire. Mary and Sarah sacrifice a child, with Mary smothering her with her bare hands. The girls (except Gemma) get naked, chase, and kill a deer, hitting it in the head until it's pulpy. Felicity scrapes Kartik in the chest with a sharp stick. The creature tries to control Gemma.


Gemma's brother asks if she's "still chaste." Felicity has a secret relationship with a Gypsy. Felicity kisses Gemma full on the lips. The girls discuss "carnal" acts and Felicity says, "I'm going to have many men." Reading a diary, Felicity says she thinks Mary and Sarah are "Sapphists," who "prefer the love of women to men." Gemma dreams about almost having sex (with some detail), where he touches "a place I haven't let myself explore." A satyr peeks under the hem of a girl's dress.


"Bastard," "hell."

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Gemma's father is addicted to laudanum, an opiate. He also smoked a hookah while in India. The girls drink liquor together and pressure Ann even when she doesn't want to: "Drink or you're out of the club." Gemma is hung over the next morning and says she will only drink sherry, not whiskey, from then on. 

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know this Victorian Era-set novel involves the supernatural, including girls who visit with the dead and help spirits cross over into the afterlife. It has a few sexual moments and a fair amount of violence, including a suicide and sacrificial killing of a child.

Parents say

Kids say

What's the story?

Sixteen-year-old Gemma is sent to a girls' boarding school in England after her mother's mysterious death. Gemma's visions give her the power to enter another realm where illusions seem real. Here, unlike in the stifling real world for proper young ladies in 1895, Gemma and her friends can pursue whatever most delights them. Emboldened by their new power, the young women refuse to acknowledge the realm's darkness until it threatens to destroy them.

Is it any good?


Set in a time of corsets and Latin lessons, A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY contrasts the freedom of a fantasy world -- and the dark edges of power -- with Victorian society's constraints on women. This juxtaposition of detailed worlds forms the book's heart, as the friendship among the girls is marred by inconsistency. The plot, too, lurches a bit -- given a secret diary, why would anyone wait so long to read the ending? -- but its core mystery is still satisfying. 

The start of a trilogy, A Great and Terrible Beauty resolves enough to serve as a standalone but leaves an evil character's identity and its heroine's future open for the sequels.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about their heart's desire. Do teens identify with Pippa's wish to find true love, or Ann's desire to be beautiful, or Felicity's craving for power?

  • Miss Moore, one of Gemma's teachers, tells the girls that the mind is a garden that requires cultivating. Do you agree? How do you "cultivate" your mind?

  • Miss Moore also says "There are no safe choices. Only other choices. . . Every choice has consequences." How does that apply in your life?

  • This book has supernatural elements; why do you think this type of book is so popular right now?

Book details

Author:Libba Bray
Topics:Magic and fantasy
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Delacorte Press
Publication date:December 1, 2003
Number of pages:415
Read aloud:13
Read alone:13

This review of A Great and Terrible Beauty was written by

About our rating system

  • ON: Content is age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • PAUSE: Know your child; some content may not be right for some kids.
  • OFF: Not age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • NOT FOR KIDS: Not appropriate for kids of any age.

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Our star rating assesses the media's overall quality.

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging, great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging, good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging, good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging, okay learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Teen, 16 years old Written byFantasyFiend12 March 20, 2010


I crazy enjoyed this book. It's fast, enjoyable, creepy, dark, and lovely. (And the front cover is just beautiful!) The only thing that annoyed me was the friendship, the reason why I put 'messages aren't positive' for my concerns. It's the classic clique thing with all the rude, snobby girls...except, instead of the main character straying away from them and being unique, it's about her actually becoming their friend. That was strange. I still don't understand how they are all friends even though they turn a little better near the end. The romance is beautiful, and there is only a teeny bit of sex. Nothing to really worry about. There's just a short, one paragraph thing with that she dreams about. Nothing graphic. All in all, a really good book and I would recomend it to anyone who enjoys creepy fantasy with romantic twists!
Teen, 16 years old Written byFrenchhorn21 April 29, 2011

Amazing book

I loved this book, because it combines my favorite genres- fantasy and historical fiction. I am obsessed with the the Victorian Era, so it was perfect to have a group of independent girls who are each rebelling in their own ways, but also had other problems to deal with- they're fighting the evil Circe, but are also fighting the confines of Victorian England
Adult Written bytobys_sister September 4, 2009

Good for the mature teenager.

Though this book can be a little intense at times, if your teenager is mature enough to understand the good messages underneath the drama and such, it is actually a very good book. It deals a lot with reality, which is a good wake up call for some. It sends a message that real life isn't always going to be easy, and it's how you deal with the hardships that matters in the end.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models


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