Gail Carriger gives the YA genre a try in her new Finishing School series. Despite my misgivings about the later Parasol Protectorate books, I was as excited about this as anyone. Some of my hopes were met and we do get a new lovable cast of characters but we also get a lot of things we’ve already read in her previous books. All things considered, however, this book offers fun on every single page and I’ll happily continue reading this new series.
Published by: Little, Brown, 2013
ebook: 320 pages
Series: Finishing School #1
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea.
It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.
Sophronia Temminnick at 14 is a great trial more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners — and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Her poor mother, desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady, enrolls the lively tomboy in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. But young ladies learn to finish…everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage — in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education.
I love books about schools. Even before Harry Potter, there was something about fictional characters going through the same ordeals I had to, only they get to do it in awesome fantasy worlds and learn magic – or in this case, the fine art of finishing. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School, Sophronia not only learns how to curtsy properly or the language a fan can speak, she is also instructed in obtaining secret information, killing silently, and sneaking about. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded reading more about the actual lessons, but Sophronia manages to teach herself enough sneaking about and investigating to make up for an entire school year.
What I liked about this was that the writing is clearly recognizable as Gail Carriger, yet it has its own distinct voice. It is set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate, some 20 years earlier, but because we get a new protagonist, an entirely new setting, and a few new steampunk inventions, Etiquette & Espionage has a freshness to it that I’ve been missing in Gail Carriger’s latest books. The only thing that classifies this as young adult fiction is the lack of sex and the protagonists’ age. Other than that, it pretty much feels like coming home into a hilarious universe of werewolves, vampires, high tea, and the art of eyelash fluttering.
My misgivings are few and negligible. I felt a little cheated that the author borrows so heavily from already established ideas and that some others felt almost anachronicstic. In this alternate universe we’ve got to know in the Parasol Protectorate, we are travelling into the past. To find out there were robots everywhere? If people had invented mechanical household servants, then why does nobody in Alexia Tarabotti’s time seem to have them? A useful thing like that wouldn’t just go out of fashion, would it? Like I said, it took me a little out of the flow but it wasn’t a big deal, overall. The mechanicals are handled in such a fun way that I’ll suspend my disbelief a little more.
A wonderful bonus for old fans is that we get to meet two well-known character’s younger selves and that’s all I’m going to say about it. It was a pleasant surprise and said characters grew on me even more than in the Parasol Protectorate. As characters go, Sophronia was a likable, flawed heroine who is far too blunt for her own good, but all the more endearing for it. Her friends – excepting the two mentioned above – felt more like charicatures than real people. Dimity was clearly a rip-off of Carriger’s own Ivy Hisslepenny, with a tendency toward the ridiculous, but her constant fainting fits made for some truly funny scenes. I was also thrilled to find a dark-skinned character who, because Sophronia just isn’t a society lady, is treated just the same as everybody else – at least by her. The issues are not ignored, it’s just that the protagonist doesn’t see any issues with having a friend who’s skin is a different color than her own.
At the center of the plot are several mysteries that Sophronia and her friends are trying to solve. But there are also classes, supernaturals to be dealt with, the usual school girl enmities and rumors floating about the school. Being a lady and an intelligencer at the same time proves to be harder than expected. But for us, who get to read about the insanity that is the Finishing School, it is first and foremost great fun. And I do have to mention that Sophronia is by far the coolest name the author has come up with so far. Frowbritcher, Mrs. Barnaclegoose, and Lord Dingleproops were tough contenders, but Sophronia is still my favorite name.
This may not be a groundbreaking book for Gail Carriger, but it was insane fun to read. Her sense of humor, although we’ve all heard it before, doesn’t fail to amuse and I actually preferred some of the ridiculous lessons Sophronia has to take to Alexia’s investigations. I don’t expect to be blown away by any of Carriger’s books anymore but if I have a couple of spare hours, they are wonderfully silly fun and well worth the read.
THE GOOD: Gail Carriger’s hilarious voice is back. The Finishing School and its classes are wonderful, Sophronia a great protagonist and I loved the “reunion” with characters we’ve previously met as adults.
THE BAD: Some rehashing of old ideas and gimmicks.
BONUS: Bumbersnoot the mechanimal. Oh, and flywaymen.
THE VERDICT: A hilarious and charming story set in a very steampunk-y world. The endearing characters and the sense of humor make up for any problems with the plot I may have had. Rcommended for fans of Gail Carrigers or those completely new to her writing.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good
A word on the covers:
I hated the Parasol Protectorate covers. Not because I disliked the design. The black and white background with a lady in a colorful dress was actually a brilliant idea. It’s just that I personally found the cover model to look neither like Alexia nor in any way pretty.
This time, the designers flipped it around and we get a colorful background with a (very pretty) young lady in black and white. I love the design and the different patterns on the wallpaper. The dresses are wonderful and the scissors/knife are a nice touch that give you a feeling of what you may find inside these books. Well done, Little, Brown!