“It’s most annoying of you to order me to do something I’m going to do anyway. Now it’ll look like I’m obeying you.” ~Miss Sophronia Temminnick
I absolutely adore Gail Carriger’s FINISHING SCHOOL series in which spunky Miss Sophronia Temminnick and her friends are being finished while they learn to finish others. For Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is not your usual Victorian boarding school. Unbeknownst to its headmistress, those Young Ladies of Quality are being trained to be assassins who will one day serve and protect their queen (or at least Sophronia assumes this — she’s not actually sure yet).
In Waistcoats & Weaponry, the third installment, the young “ladies” are still in their second year of school. While the academy drifts through the ether in a series of extraordinary dirigibles, the girls are learning seduction techniques and how to use stylish weapons such as bladed fans. But the girls have various distractions. Sophronia’s friend Sidheag is upset by bad news from her werewolf pack in Scotland, and then she disappears.
Then there’s the upcoming ball that Sophronia and her best friend Dimity will attend on the ground. Some of the boys from the evil genius school will be there, including Lord Felix Mersey, a young man who Sophronia has a bit of a crush on. Felix is trying his hardest to please his father by being the eccentric evil genius he’s supposed to be — he wears black, applies eyeliner, and affects a brooding disposition — but he’s really a softy at heart.
Besides Felix, Sophronia is also more than a bit enamored of Soap, the black boy who works in the dirigible’s boiler room. Soap is tall, strong, and smart and he is motivated to acquire the education and connections he needs to better his position in life. He doesn’t plan to be a “sootie” forever. Best of all, he adores Sophronia. (An aside: I’d usually be annoyed by a YA love triangle, but this one is so sweet and unusual that I like it, even if I don’t completely believe in it.)
When Sidheag and some werewolves appear at the ball in great distress, Sophronia, Dimity, Felix and Soap decide to help her get to her pack in Scotland. (It’s also a little unbelievable that Sidheag, who is not a werewolf herself, feels like she has the ability and authority to lead her pack.) The wild retro-adventure that ensues is a fresh spin on all those old tropes and trappings that we expect to see in an adventure story set in a steam-powered world. There’s a hot-air balloon, and a train carrying villains with a gadget that will threaten society. As soon as I saw that train, I knew that characters would be running across its top, jumping from car to car. I knew at least one would be thrown out of the train as it sped along. I knew there’d be grappling hooks and I envisioned a scene on the ground with pistol-toting villains.
I was right and I loved it for two reasons. One is that I admire the way Carriger blends her new world of automatons, paranormal creatures, female assassins, and maybe even (gasp!) a mixed-race romance with the familiar steampunk clichés. Another is that I thought about how much my 12 year old daughter (the book’s target audience) would enjoy this slapstick adventure. Instead of seeming worn, I think these retro elements will amuse older readers (as in, “I see what you did there”) while introducing youngsters to plot elements that their elders loved when they were kids. Besides, Carriger elevates it somewhat by taking the opportunity to include some subtle commentary on important class and race issues.
I’d recommend Gail Carriger’s FINISHING SCHOOL series for teenage girls
but, really, it’s hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it (see comments below) as long as they realize it’s a parody. (Though it’s a “fresh” parody.) There’s a huge plot twist at the end of Waistcoats & Weaponry. I can’t wait to find out what happens next in book four, Manners & Mutiny.
If you don’t try Hachette Audio’s version, you’re really missing out. Moira Quirk’s performance is perfect in every way and one of the best I’ve ever heard. (Sample it here.) Reading this series in print form would be, in my opinion, a grievous error.