By Gail Carriger
Fourteen-year-old Sophronia Temminnick has been enrolled against her will in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, and is nearly resigned to spending the next few years in abject misery learning about music, dancing and etiquette; but she soon realizes that the school’s curriculum is very different from what her mother had hoped. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s students certainly learn all the arts necessary for a proper young woman – including espionage, diversion and death.
Throw vampires, werewolves and dastardly forces into the mix and Sophronia and her friends are certainly in for a rousing year of education!
Absolutely elegant and gloriously proper.
I won’t lie, this book had me on concept alone; steampunk finishing school with robots, vampires and werewolves? Sign me up. I think I spent most of it giggling with glee.
Carriger has a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek approach to her worldbuilding here that really works in introducing this world and how it works while keeping things light and interesting. We’re never really told what exactly Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Academy does, aside from insisting that murder should be the domain of any proper lady, and yet near the end of the book you don’t really care because it seems to fit into its own strange logic. In the same way, we’re never explained the reason behind werewolves and vampires’s existence, but they fit so nicely into the worldbuilding that you just stop asking questions after a while. Evil scientists and werewolf lairds are discussed matter-of-factly in the same breath as the proper way to carry a handkerchief or accessorize a hat. Everything is slightly ridiculous, but in the best way; I mean, there’s a character named Lord Dingleproops. I rest my case.
Sophronia is a bit of a run-of-the-mill protagonist, in that she’s tomboyish and resourceful and wants adventure out there in the great wide somewhere, but this is helped by the fact that she’s a fish-out-of-water for the first half of the story and a welcome straight-man against which to bounce all the silliness of the setting. She has a wicked wit that lets her see the ridiculousness of others’ behaviour while still admitting the usefulness of such seemingly pointless manners and etiquette. I would complain about not-like-other-girls-ness, but as two-thirds of the cast is made up of diverse female characters it doesn’t really apply here.
I will however note this, because I used the word diverse in the last paragraph: this book could do better about racial diversity. There’s a single POC character in the whole book, and while he’s important to the plot he’s not a protagonist; however, I did appreciate that the author went out of her way to correct Sophronia’s assumption that all black people must be foreign.
At its best, this book reminds me of Harry Potter: it’s quick and fun, the worldbuilding is madcap and the characters are generally likable and endearing. It could do better, as with most stories, but it’s delightful nonetheless.