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Curtsies & Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger

Title: Curtsies & ConspiraciesCurtsiesConspiracies (Finishing School #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk paranormal
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

The second installment in Carriger’s Finishing School Series is every bit as good as the first. Which is to say, not flawless, but thoroughly entertaining.

Returning to the floating school for female spies, we find Sophronia and her peers receiving their first evaluations. Each young lady is tested individually, but the results are given en masse. Sophronia’s ludicrously high marks make her a target for ostracization, even from her nearest and dearest — Dimity, Sidhaeg, and Agatha. Even stranger, the school is planning a trip to London — and stops on the way to pick up boys from their rival university. Suspecting that this trip is much more than meets the eye, Sophronia puts all her skills to use to get to the bottom of a scheme with major implications for the scientific and the supernatural communities alike, and to keep her friend Dimity safe from what she’s sure is an imminent kidnapping attempt.

As ever, Carriger writes with considerable felicity. The tone of the book is conscious, but not cloyingly so, as was occasionally the case in the Parasol Protectorate books. They’re over-the-top, utterly ridiculous at points, but there’s also a lot about them that feels quite real, particularly when it comes to her depiction of teenage girl social dynamics. Sophronia and her peers act like reasonable approximations of teenage girls — but not like idiots. Everything is life or death — but at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, that’s occasionally literally true as well. Your friends don’t always behave in the ways you wish they would. Signals get mixed, sometimes someone thinks she’s telegraphing one emotion but you’re interpreting another and everyone’s confused. Some people hurt each other intentionally, and some do it by accident. Despite the strange setting of a floating school, the vampires, the mechanimal pet, the intrigues, the kidnappings, and of course the fact that fourteen year old girls are being trained on how to recognize arsenic-laced tea cookies at the same time they’re learning to flirt, there’s also a lot here that’s just very… normal.

And I really appreciate the way this book handles potential romance. They’re curious about boys, but still a little hesitant about them, too. There’s a wonderful frisson of “Not yet… but soon” about it all. Sophronia discovers that she likes the attention of flirting and wants to enjoy that, but she sometimes feels discomfited by the tangle of emotions and hormones that come along with it, too. I hope that Carriger’s taking us someplace more than a standard love triangle, though, because if she’s headed in that direction, I will have to shake my head. Right now, it’s just sort of fun to watch a heroine be allowed to feel things without the pressure of making a lifelong decision based on them.

Carriger also does a lovely job weaving together her two timelines. It isn’t a strict progression, but enough of the characters interweave (and yes, there are a few more lovely cameos here) to make it a real treat. Even better, though, is the way the world itself interweaves, particularly with regard to scientific and political developments. It makes the Parasol Protectorate world more complete unto itself. It’s also unfolding further, both for the reader and for Sophronia. Alliances and sympathies aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem at first glance.

There are, as I said, a few flaws. Though the sense of character is improved from the first book, the POV bobbles a bit in some places, wandering from third-limited into third-omniscient with no real justification. And the moral lesson of the book is a bit obvious — that, as in the first book, Sophronia’s greatest strength is in her friends and allies (friendship is magic, y’all). This despite the fact that the school still seems to encourage competition, resulting in something of a mixed message for Sophronia. I’m hoping to see that play out further, especially since Sophronia does such a good job of yoking together disparate talents from very different individuals. Altogether, I thoroughly enjoyed this installment and I look forward to the next.

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Etiquette and Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Title: Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School #1)EtiquetteEspionage
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I was super-excited to get my hands on Ms. Carriger’s latest novel, her first foray into YA fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed her Parasol Protectorate series, and I’m so glad that she’s decided to continue on in this world even though she wrapped that series up. Etiquette & Espionage did not disappoint me.

Sophronia, a fourteen-year-old youngest daughter in the 1850s, is unusual. She climbs dumbwaiters and gets herself into terrible fixes and is generally an embarrassment to her family, a socially-aspirant gentry . Little does her mother know that when she packs Sophronia off to finishing school, she’s actually giving the girl just what she needs. Her unusual new circumstances first become apparent when she chats with Dimity, also headed to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, and her brother Pillover, destined for Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique. As Dimity chatters cheerfully about evil geniuses, covert recruits, Picklemen, and Custard Pots of Iniquity, Sophronia begins to suspect something is odd. When her carriage is attacked by flywaymen, their escort goes into unconvincing hysterics, and Sophronia has to take command of the horses and rescue them all, her suspicions are rather confirmed.

It turns out that Sophronia has landed at a school designed not only to turn her into a lady but to turn her lethal as well. Or, rather, the Academy has landed at her — for it’s a floating school, suspended from enormous balloons. A werewolf named Captain Niall (!) serves as ship-to-ground transport and teaches combat, a vampire covers history and deportment, mechanical staff patrol the hallways as prefects, the students learn poisons and manipulation alongside powders and manners, and the headmistress has no idea that any of it is going on. Sophronia begins to settle in at the Academy and into an easy friendship with Dimity, though she has more trouble with the others in her dormitory. Sidhaeg (!) is prickly and recalcitrant, Agatha a shy wallflower, Preshea a snob, and Monique is none other than their escort, demoted back to debut rank for refusing to give up the whereabouts of the mysterious “prototype” which the flywaymen were after. Sophronia and Monique do not get on at all, and their rivalry drives much of the action in the book. Sophronia also uses her climbing abilities to sneak into the restricted areas, where she makes friends with the sooties who keep the ship running, including Soap, a London-born boy of African descent (and props to Carriger for including a non-white character in an English historical novel!). Sophronia, never having seen a black person before, is startled by him at first but gets over it quickly. The two become friends, and Soap introduced her to Vieve (!), niece to Professor Beatrice Lefoux (!) and a budding inventor. As the plot progresses, Sophronia finds them tremendously useful in her various schemes and maneuvers.

I felt as though the story bobbled a bit at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second. There’s a stretch where the sense of character isn’t particularly strong. It is interesting to have a leading character who is so introverted and private, but it also damages the narrative a bit, at least for me. When the POV character is not particularly reflective or emotive, I (a consummate extrovert) find it harder to engage with her. It was hard to feel emotionally connected to Sophronia, and sometimes her actions seemed very abrupt because there had been little build-up to them. I admire that Sophronia is such a practical and plain-dealing heroine, but I could’ve used a larger window into her soul.

The other problem that I had was that when Sophronia first arrives at the floating school, she has absolutely no idea what’s going on, and no one will tell her. Maddeningly, nothing gets explained for a very long time. After a while, this starts to frustrate me as a reader — and I recognise that not everyone may feel this way. It’s a valid literary trope and one frequently used in YA, but I personally struggle with it. I hate being left totally in the dark. It tends to make me rush, hoping I’ll get to the explanation, but then I end up having to go back and re-read chapters in case I missed something. I understand delaying gratification and teasing the reader, but some information in this book gets played a little too close to the chest.

There are still a lot of questions left unanswered at the end of the book, and I’m hoping we’ll get more information on them in future installments — I want to know why this extraordinary pair of schools exists. Right now, the answer seems to be “just because.” I find that unsatisfying. What need does England have for an elite cadre of female assassins and a coterie of admittedly evil geniuses? What role in society are they fulfilling? For what purpose? If the Headmistress has no idea what’s going on, who does? Who drives this whole thing? Who founded it? For what reasons? I love Carriger’s world-building, but I wish we’d gotten just a little bit more on this front at the outset.

I did think, though, that I saw a glimmer of potential for change in the school’s directives, one that I hope we’ll see expanded in future books in the series. Right now, the school seems quite competitive, designed to set these ladies against each other. Sophronia, though, sees more benefit in bringing her cohorts together, drawing on their disparate skills to achieve a communal goal. I would like to see that theme develop further. So much popular opinion, especially when it comes to teenage girls, likes to promote their potential for cattiness, sniping, and backstabbing; I would love to see more YA fiction promoting healthier ideas on what they’re capable of.

The second half of the book improves greatly, though, as a few things do finally get explained and as more action enters the narrative in the final act. Sophronia deduces that Monique must have hidden the prototype at Sophronia’s family home while collecting her, and so she determines to retrieve it with the help of her friends (and new pet, mechanimal dog Bumbersnoot). Sophronia’s skills really get to shine here, and the sense of action and excitement is wonderful fun.

For anyone who wondered why I (!)ed a few times in this review, it’s because there are several connections in Etiquette & Espionage to the Parasol Protectorate series. This book is set some twenty-odd years before that series begins, so there’s a lot of potential for crossover cameos. Even the MacGuffin of the book, the prototype, is a component of technology that becomes crucial by the time of the Protectorate series. Carriger also takes a few moments to poke fun at the steampunk world in general, through a clique of boys at Pillover’s school, the Pistons, who sew gears to their clothing for no reason but fashion, smudge their eyes with kohl, and like to crash parties and spike the punch. It’s a good-natured and, let’s face it, well-deserved ribbing.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with Etiquette & Espionage. There were a few bumps that kept it from perfection, in my opinion, but — that’s true of the first couple Harry Potter books as well. For a first foray into YA fiction, Carriger’s done a lovely job. I absolutely devoured this first installment, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the series goes.

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Timeless, by Gail Carriger

Title: Timeless (Parasol Protectorate #5)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 386 pages
Genre: steampunk adventure
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: For the series as a whole, Changeless-forward, really

I said in my review of Heartless that the Parasol Protectorate series just keeps getting better, and Timeless did not disappoint me. I think it’s the best of the series. All of the characters are handled well, Carriger’s descriptions are both vivid and precise, and her dialogue, as always, sparkles with wit and humour. Like the rest of the series, this is steampunk with a fine froth and a sense of humour. Timeless also continues the exploration of the political ramifications of the collision of the paranormal and the scientific, delving far back into he AU’s history as well as setting the stage for its future.

Timeless jumps two years forward from Heartless, two years that have been peaceful — well, as peaceful as anything is likely to get in the Maccon household, especially considering they live in a vampire’s closet so that said vampire can serve as adoptive father to two-year-old Prudence, who happens to be a metanatural. Born from her supernatural werewolf father and preternatural Alexia, Prudence possesses the capability to absorb a supernatural’s aspect — leaving said supernatural mortal until such time as Alexia can use her preternatural abilities to cancel everything out. It certainly makes life interesting — not least for their neighbours — but all in all, things seem to be sorting themselves out.

And then Alexia gets, by way of the local vampire queen, a summons to appear with her daughter in Alexandria (yes, the one in Egypt) before Matakara, the oldest vampire living. At the same time, Sidhaeg — Conall’s multi-great-granddaughter and Alpha of his old Scottish pack — shows up, looking for her missing Beta, who had been in Egypt on a mission for her. The Beta reappears, but gets murdered before he can get more than a few words out to Alexia. So Alexia packs up her family — and the Tunstells and their acting troupe — and heads out via steamer (werewolves being notoriously poor floaters). From there, the story whirls through a sequence of mishaps, supernatural political entanglements, and strange occurrences. The action clips along at a great pace, both in Alexandria and back at home, as the Maccons abroad and the wolf pack back at home both try to sort out the mystery of the God-Breaker Plague.

The really great thing here, which started to become prominent in Blameless and Heartless, is Carriger’s ability to not forget character development admist all the action. For a lot of the book, that really shines in Biffy and Lyall, though we do get a fair bit out of Alexia and Conall as well. Biffy’s swiftly becoming my favourite character in the whole series, really, because he goes through such a transformative journey from when we meet him to the end of this book. Without giving too much away, Carriger handles the various aspects of his personality and relationship dynamics really well, with a lot of tenderness and a lot of psychological awareness. She handles the expanding cast of characters without sacrificing any emotional realism, and she jumps back and forth between the two plotlines in a way that makes sure the reader never loses sight of what’s going on.

Carriger also does a nice job weaving multicultural elements into the story. I particularly like the “Drifters”, balloon-living nomads of the North African desert. We don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with them, but you get a sense of real cultural texture nonetheless. I love the idea of this herd of balloons, linked together by nets that the women and children use for social interaction. Her descriptions of steampunk Alexandria and Upper Egypt are a great blend of imaginative and clearly well-researched, and the cast of extras that the Maccon/Tunstell party meets there adds even more colour and excitement to the series.

I also commend Carriger for her ability to portray a toddler character — a notoriously difficult challenge in writing, and one that many authors seem to avoid at all costs. I’m convinced the difficulties in writing such young characters is the reason most happy-ever-afters end at the altar, or at least with the birth. But Carriger strikes it perfectly with Prudence. She has the right size vocabulary to reflect the state where vocalisation hasn’t quite caught up to cognitive reasoning; Prudence understands more than she can express, and this does seem to frustrate her at times. She also manages to make Prudence charming without being saccharine, another admirable feat; Prudence demonstrates the right balance of adorability, manic impulse, and short attention span for a two-year-old. She’s also part of the story without overwhelming it, which I appreciate; too often when series do incorporate kids, it becomes all about them. Alexia’s attitude goes a long way towards keeping this from becoming a trite or obnoxious trope.

I’ve said throughout the series that Carriger is at her best when she’s writing for herself, with her own style, rather than emulating other genres, and in Timeless, she seems to have trusted that impulse entirely. There are no moments of narrative awkwardness, where the story feels like something else has collided into it from the outside; rather, we are treated to the continuing adventures of Alexia et al in Carriger’s own witty voice. It’s a delight. My only criticism is that the denouement ties up a little too quickly. I could’ve used a bit more exploration of the new constructs our characters find themselves in at the end of the series, about how they’re going to move forward from here on out. Ultimately, it just ended way too soon; I could have happily spent a lot more time with these characters.

Timeless is an adventure story that manages to be lighthearted and emotionally tugging at the same time. Carriger gives us characters we can care about, but without ever taking herself too seriously. The series as a whole has fantastic energy, superb wit, and a sparkle that I’ve yet to find in other steampunk literature. The Parasol Protectorate series is just plain fun. I’m tremendously sorry to say goodbye to this series, but I’m delighted that Carriger’s world will be continuing in the YA Finishing School Series and the adult Parasol Protectorate Abroad series. The former will take place some twenty-five years earlier in the AU’s history; the latter is due to feature our Prudence, all grown up and taking on the world. Both are due out in 2013, and I eagerly anticipate their arrival.

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