“Young ladies ought to be seen and not heard, except when they’re climbing over dirigibles or looking for secret information. Unless the being seen bit is part of a misdirection.”
This advice pretty much sums up what Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is all about. They learn music and etiquette, along with eyelash-fluttering and the language of parasols, but all of it goes into the service of turning out young ladies who are capable of stealing, finding, maiming, subverting or even killing anything or anyone as required. With decorum, modesty, and a poise that befits their position. Woe betide any stain on a petticoat hem.
Gail Carriger has returned to the world she created in the Alexia Tarabotti (two of which I’ve reviewed here), although this appears – from various internal hints – to be set before Alexia’s thrilling adventures into how to dress to deal with the supernatural. This means that this is a decidedly other version of Victorian England; one in which mechanical servants are completely de rigeur, as is having both a werewolf and a vampire on the faculty of said Finishing School. There are trains but there are also dirigibles; there is no telegraph, but it’s ok – there’s still lots of fashion.
For fans of Carriger’s previous work, I should mention some of the differences, the foremost being in the main character. Sophronia is fourteen, and therefore – despite a propensity towards precociousness – very different in outlook from the adult Alexia. Attached to this is that Sophronia is a student, and therefore at least nominally restricted in her movements, unlike Alexia.And, while Alexia’s adventures revolve around the supernatural because of her unusual preternatural status, the supernatural is just there for Sophronia – to be admired or scared of occasionally, but not intersecting with her everyday life in much of a way (although Captain Niall is a spunk). None of these comments are intended to be in any way a complaint about this new novel; it’s just good to clear the air for fans of the previous work.
So, Sophronia. Imagine getting settled with that for a first name. She’s the youngest daughter but somewhere-in-the-middle child of the Temminnick household, consistently getting into trouble and generally causing small-to-medium mayhem (landing a trifle on a lady’s head doesn’t quite count as major mayhem, since said lady was a duchess or anything). This mayhem is naturally upsetting to her mother, mostly because it means that Sophronia is not acting like a lady and generally ends up looking very unlike a lady (custard is unbecoming). Thus, to finishing school, much to her sister Petunia’s relief (… I think I would rather Sophronia as my name) and Sophronia’s dismay. Fortunately, the journey to the school itself contains adventure, and Sophronia begins to suspect that this school may not be quite what she was expecting. And then she reaches the school itself, and the very buildings indicate that this is quite something else.
The plot revolves around good old fashioned intrigue amongst students and staff, as well as an external threat. As with any good school-based novel there’s a deal of sussing-out the good eggs from the bad, figuring out which teachers can be manipulated in which ways, and poking at the edges of the rules to see which break and which bend. The first is just complex enough to be interesting, even amongst Sophronia’s group of ‘debuts’ (first-years) – there’s only 6. The second is complicated by the fact that the staff are naturally quite good at the things they teach – diversion, for example, and manipulation, and generally devious behaviour. And the third – well, that’s where the fun lies, isn’t it?
The Alexia novels have been referred to as ‘bustlepunk’, and it’s fair to say that you have to have a genuine fascination with, or high tolerance for, descriptions of clothing, toilette in general, and eating to really enjoy those novels. The same applies here, although it’s laid on a little less thick – we’re mostly dealing with young teenaged girls after all, with little interaction with outside society (which doesn’t mean they can get away with not having their hair and nails perfect, nor that they can ever be seen less than fully clothed (inc several petticoats)). Sophronia is an interesting perspective to share, in this case, because her previous attitude was definitely one of scowling at the notion of ‘ladylike’. This changes over time, but the reasons for her change in attitude are also shown – and it’s not that catching a husband suddenly assumes an enormous significance for her. This slight undercutting of the social expectations of a Victorian lady was nice to see.
My one complaint, and fortunately it does not crop up very often, is something that also bugged me in a couple of the Alexia novels, and that’s the attitude towards class. Just occasionally there are comments about those not in the rarified ranks of quail-tay. Usually those comments come from unpleasant characters, but – unlike the comments on social expectations – they are not undercut to show the unpleasant snobbery inherent in such words. It’s somewhat mollified by Sophronia’s unconventional friendship with some Downstairs types, who – glory! – actually manage to be quite useful, but still… the comments rankled.
Overall, this is a rocking, enjoyable novel. Steampunk for the sake of the plot, not the aesthetic; spunky female lead (this definitely passes the Bechdel test); and a satisfactorily intriguing plot. Yes I am looking forward to the sequel… which, given this has only just come out, is something of a problem for me.
You can get Etiquette and Espionage from Fishpond.