Friday, October 21, 2016

Etiquette & Espionage

Etiquette & Espionage
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 13+

I first became a fan of Gail Carriger through her frisky, adult "Parasol Protectorate" series, a quintet of paranormal-steampunk-comedy-romance-thrillers set in the 1870s. For a long time I've been hankering to try her "Finishing School" series, a young-adult prequel quartet set in the 1850s. Recently, during a raid on my local library's YA section, I discovered a full set of them, which is an excellent cue to get started.

This, ahem, debut book in the series introduces Miss Sophronia Temminick, the unladylike youngest daughter in a large family of country gentry somewhere in Wiltshire. Her curiosity about the inner workings of the clockwork- and steam-driven domestics (known, in the Parasolverse, as "mechanicals") and her habit of causing scandalous accidents with jam tarts leads to Sophronia being recruited to an exclusive finishing school that puts an unexpected weight on the word "finishing." At Madamoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy, girls receive lessons in seduction, poisoning, intelligence-gathering, and defending themselves against vampires and werewolves, all in the charming environment of a three-balloon airship floating above Dartmoor. It's so very hush-hush, even Mlle. Geraldine doesn't know the true nature of her school; practicing deception on her is one of the girls' lessons.

In her first term at Mlle. Geraldine's, Sophronia learns to dance, to dress, and to dissemble like a fine lady who will, presumably, one day marry well (perhaps more than once). She also learns to elude the mechanicals that patrol the hallways, to visit the "sooties" who shovel coal in the boiler rooms, and to hide a steam-powered sausage dog in the dormitory she shares with five other girls of varying trustworthiness. A couple of her friends may be familiar to those who remember the Parasol Protectorate. But friends aren't all she has. Sophronia also, very quickly, develops a full dance card of enemies, including airborne pirates known as flywaymen, tophatted hoodlums called Picklemen, an especially roguish clique called the Pistons at a boys' school for evil geniuses, and one of her own classmates.

Everyone is after a prototype thingummy, which has something to do with the fact that telegraphs don't work in the Parasolverse. Don't expect me to explain this, other than "because steampunk." As Sophronia gradually learns enough of the arts of a finished (or finishing) female to attend her older sister's coming-out ball during the holidays - and no, "coming out" doesn't mean what you think, you 21st-century goof - she also pieces together the mystery of where the prototype may have been hidden. Wouldn't you know, keeping it from falling into the wrong hands depends entirely on what one resourceful young lady does at a memorable evening of social disaster and fashion mayhem.

Other books in this series are Curtsies & Conspiracies, Waistcoats & Weaponry, and Manners & Mutiny. Carriger's other writings include the on-going "Custard Protocol" series, so far comprising Prudence and Imprudence; the "Finishing School" spinoff series "Delightfully Deadly" with, so far, only the book Poison or Protect; the LGBT "Supernatural Society" series, also with only one book so far, Romancing the Inventor; and a "Carriger Quartet" of racy short fictions in full-cast audio productions. It's safe to assume an Adult Content Advisory applies to all of them; but the "Finishing School" series seems, so far, to be quite teen-friendly, with only a far-off sparkle of sexiness to come. Mostly, it's just subversively funny, with all the steampunk hallmarks of high fashion, satirical wit, technological oddities, secret societies (frequently sporting octopus-themed bling), and class warfare sometimes, but not always, depicted in terms of the social attitudes of and about the undead. And even though it lacks the Gail Carriger hallmark of scenes that oblige you to take a cold shower after reading them, it radiates her love of all things 19th-century British, with frills and stays and petticoats and, now and then, a flash of tartan plaid. In four words: charming, adventurous, good fun.

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