Sunday, February 19, 2017

Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies & Conspiracies
by Gail Carriger
Recommended Ages: 14+

In her second year at Mlle. Geraldine's Finishing Academy, Sophronia Temminick gets unprecedentedly high marks in an examination of the combination of high-society feminine accomplishments and covert intelligence that sets the school apart from other female seminaries in Queen Victoria's Britain - well, that and the fact that the school is housed in an enormous airship floating above Dartmoor. But the teachers reward her progress by deliberately turning all her classmates against her, in what is either a nasty setup or an extra-credit challenge. Either way, being ostracized by her classmates slows Sophronia down enough that she almost, but not quite, misses her chance to meddle in a mystery that places the school at the crux of the confict between the forces of shadow - the vampires and werewolves who are a significant part of the country's ruling class - and the Picklemen, evil geniuses who believe the future lies in the direction of human science and technology.

In Gail Carriger's steampunk rendition of reality, technology lies, in turn, in the direction of a gizmo that can aid airships in navigating the aetherosphere, an upper layer of the atmosphere that until now has been too dangerous to enter. This innocent little gadget could change the pace of mankind, boost the economy, and tilt the balance between the undead and humans. So, when a teacher and 12 students from the leading Picklemen-sponsored boys' school come aboard Mlle. Geraldine's airship, intrigue and sabotage naturally result. And just as naturally, Sophronia is close to the center of it, even undertaking a masterful (and stomach-turningly successful) bit of character assassination while she's poking around.

Meantime, Sophronia also finds her heart increasingly confused by the competing pull of two disturbingly attractive boys: one, a viscount who finds her irresistible mostly because she plays hard to get; the other, a "sootie" from the coal-powered engine room, whose protective instincts ensure he'll be part of the rescue attempt when London's most fashionable vampire hive kidnaps her best friend Dimity and her annoying, not-very-evil genius brother. The romp can hardly be complete without a ride on a werewolf's back, an exploding sausage dog, a faustian bargain with a cross-dressing 12-year-old mad inventor, and an impossibly steady flow of laugh-bombs that hit the target dead-center. Some of the gags flow out of daffy characters, such as the teacher who specializes in poisons, dresses as a nun, and says lines like "Remember, a lily doesn't change its spots." Others, by far the best and most numerous, are examples of situational humor that ensure the smarter a reader is, the more she (or he) will enjoy this book. It's simply - if I may use that word loosely - a hilarious comedy of Victorian manners and fashions, combined with a retro-futuristic sci-fi/horror/romance/espionage thriller that strains the genre boundaries of steampunk.

This is the second book in the young-adult "Finishing School" quartet by the author of the rather racier "Parasol Protectorate" series, to which it is a preqel. It begins with Etiquette & Espionage and continues in Waistcoats & Weaponry and Manners & Mutiny. One of the characters in this series stars in a spinoff novella titled Poison or Protect, while there is also a Parasol Protectorate sequel series called "Custard Protocol," with two books so far. Carriger's work also includes a handful of LGBT romances set in the same steampunk/paranormal universe.

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