Book Review Roundup: The Finishing School Series
I semi-regularly review books on Goodreads and, even less regularly, cross-post those reviews to my blog. Here, I review the four novels in the YA Finishing School Series by Gail Carriger. 2018 is the year I learned to waltz and regularly started going to afternoon tea; why shouldn’t it also be the year I acquainted myself with Carriger’s steampunk-Victorian world of tea, ballgowns, and clever, capable ladies?
Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Etiquette & Espionage is the story of an adventurous 14-year-old girl in a fantasy/steampunk version of 1850s Britain who gets recruited to study at a school for lady spies and assassins. It offers many of the pleasures of early Harry Potter: whimsical humor, silly names (“Lord Dingleproops”), and lots of sneaking around a magical boarding school after lights-out. But I’m almost more tempted by Mademoiselle Geraldine’s course offerings than Hogwarts’. What teenage girl wouldn’t want to go to a school that keeps “London hours”: rise at noon, tea at five, lessons from a friendly vampire after sunset? Or practice passing secret messages while dancing the quadrille? Then, the steampunk trappings lend an extra layer of charm. I’m not even a dog person, but I fell in love with Sophronia’s clockwork dachshund, whose tail wags like a metronome.
True, the atmosphere here is stronger than the plot, which is fueled by the hunt for a blatant MacGuffin (an object referred to only as “the prototype,” whose purpose is unclear). I read on because I enjoyed living in Sophronia’s world, not necessarily because I cared about the mystery. And I do hope that the subsequent books explore some of the thornier dilemmas faced by intelligence agents: Sophronia’s physical and mental skills are frequently put to the test here, but not so much her morals or emotions.
I also cringed when the first line of dialogue from the book’s only Black character sounded like something out of a minstrel show. (“How-d’ye-do, miss? I’m Phineas B. Crow, though everyone calls me Soap, because I needs it more than most.”) Fortunately, as the book goes on and Soap becomes an important character, his speech sounds much less caricatured. But someone should have told Carriger that his initial appearance creates the wrong impression.
Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Though only a few months have elapsed since Etiquette & Espionage , Sophronia seems much more sophisticated in Curtsies & Conspiracies. She’s risen to the top of her class, she’s better at planning and scheming, she experiences some moral dilemmas and tests of loyalty, and romance enters the picture!
I don’t know how I feel about this book’s love triangle, though. I gather that it’s de rigueur in YA fiction these days to have the heroine torn between two very different but very charming young men (this wasn’t the case when I was a teen/tween). But it can feel really contrived, especially when the boys are so instantly devoted, and the girl is so oblivious, as is the situation here. And I kind of missed the majority-female atmosphere of the first book. Still, would I appreciate the romance more if I were the age of the target audience? As a teen, I swooned over books that told me that boys could find a brainy, introverted girl attractive—that they wouldn’t always go for the bubbly extroverts.
And I do appreciate the focus on Sophronia’s brains, poise, and confidence. This series could even serve as a handbook for smart, socially awkward girls: small talk and parties are more fun if you treat them like a spy! (Observe everybody carefully, try to tease out hidden motives, play your cards close to your chest, etc.)
However, this is the second book in a row where I wish the climax were a little more exciting. During the last few chapters, it feels like Carriger is telling, not showing—she’ll write things like, “He began to harangue the vampires, accusing them of all manner of dastardly deeds,” instead of fully spelling out the dialogue and action. Was she trying to keep it under a certain page count or something?
Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I zipped through Waistcoats & Weaponry with the speed of a steam engine. The complaints I had about Curtsies & Conspiracies no longer apply: Sophronia has finally realized that she is in an Archetypal YA Love Triangle™, which leads to fun flirting, angsty yearning, and a resolution of a kind. And there’s a satisfying and emotional climax, rather than one that feels rushed and confused. (No spoilers, but let’s just say these two things—the emotive climax and the resolution of the love triangle—might be related…)
I also liked that this book follows a different structure from the two earlier ones and focuses on a smaller cast of characters. Very little of it takes place at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s finishing school; the Big Fancy Ball happens a third of the way through; and the remainder involves Sophronia and her friends stowing away on a mysterious steam locomotive. (I love train stories!)
Plus, it's fun that Carriger is using the 1850s setting to explore 2010s fears about new technology. The overall plot of the series involves different factions fighting over a new device that functions as a kind of steampunk version of Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. If the villains get their way, they could use this technology to “hack” all of England’s mechanical devices and cause mass chaos! This seems to play into modern-day anxieties about things like cyber-terrorism and "smart" devices that spy on you.
So, caught between supernatural creatures, political conspiracies, and technological advances, Sophronia is trying to figure out where her loyalties lie… and whether, as a spy-in-training, she can even afford to have loyalties and ethics. Favorite quote:
“We are on the side of curiosity and evenhandedness. Once we know what’s really going on, then we choose,” [said Sophronia].
“That’s a very murky position,” objected Felix.
“So’s the weather. But this is England, we must learn to live with the uncertainty.”
Manners & Mutiny by Gail Carriger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Manners & Mutiny, the fourth and final book of the Finishing School series, goes out with a bang, in more ways than one. There are more fancy parties, more ballgowns, more smooching, and more genuine danger than in the previous three books combined. (At the first of these parties, the young spies-in-training are required to impersonate one another—a clever way of reintroducing the main characters and dealing with the exposition.) And in the final chapters, Sophronia becomes a genuine action heroine, engaging in James Bond-style feats aboard a hijacked dirigible.
Despite spending four enjoyable books in her company, and despite usually adoring YA series that feature brainy heroines, I’m still not sure if I find Sophronia likable or relatable. Several times during this book, she worries that she’s become too good of a spy—too guarded and secretive and mistrustful—which puts a certain distance between the reader and the heroine. Then again, do guys find James Bond “likable and relatable”? Maybe Gail Carriger’s biggest achievement with this series, apart from her fun steampunk-Victorian worldbuilding, is to show young girls a protagonist who doesn’t give a damn about being likable or ingratiating, who is not adorably flawed. You don’t necessarily want to be Sophronia’s best friend, but you definitely want her on your side: she’ll fight for what she believes in, and she always finishes the job.