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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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A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

Title: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady TrentNaturalHistoryDragons
Author: Marie Brennan
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 336 pages
Genre: historical fantasy
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

I received this book from a friend who has an unerring knack in telling me what it is I want to read. I have him to thank for Catherynne Valente and A Song of Ice and Fire (which we both started before that series began its downhill trudge in A Feast for Crows, but that is neither here nor there). His taste has not erred with A Natural History of Dragons, which I absolutely ate up.

I’m calling this a historical fantasy because, though it quite clearly does not take place in our world — the maps are nothing like — it is still entirely flavoured by our world. The tone is utterly Victorian (never minding that in this universe, a king is regnant over the nation in question) and expertly aped, at that. The cultures are not just approximations but total analogs for the British, the Russians, etc. But the geography is entirely different, and the year is apparently 5658. (Which would be 1897 in the Jewish calendar, so perhaps there’s an analog there?) At any rate, Brennan never explicates clearly the nature of her world, and it’s a bit of an odd thing to wrap one’s head around, but it works well enough. Our heroine, Lady Trent, former Miss Isabella Hendemoore, is by “the present”, an old woman, recognized as a pioneer in her field of dragon studies, anointed with honors, and well-respected. She’s decided this means she can now say whatever she pleases, and has written a memoir to do just that.

It begins with her childhood and the first stirring of her obsession with dragons — thought, in that time, to be a highly improper fixation for a young woman. Science alone is bad enough, but to focus on such terrifying beasts compounds the fault. She has a supportive if wary father to balance out her propriety-determined mama, however, and he tries to temper her less lady-like urges by nudging her onto an “appropriate” path that can still indulge her interests, eventually finding her a husband who will tolerate her passion. Early in their marriage, they join an expedition to the distinctly Slavic-flavored Vystrana, in search of rock-wyrms. Once there, however, they discover that the rock-wyrms have taken to attacking travelers and hunters with far more regularity than they have ever before known. Isabella determines to figure out what’s causing this strange and dangerous behavior — but the recalcitrance of the village folk, the interference of smugglers, and the hotbed of local politics may chase the expedition out of town before they can complete their mission.

This book is really interesting from a few different perspectives. One, as I mentioned, is the odd historical-fantastical world-blending. Another is the heroine. Isabella is refreshing from a feminist perspective: certainly strong-willed, but not a kick-ass Lara Croft type. She’s a scientist above everything else, and I think that’s wonderful. Her brain is analytical and curious, and though she is not possessed of great sentimentality, she also has plenty of distinctly feminine traits. She’s also a well-rounded character, with some flaws that balance out her admirable traits — she’s impulsive, and she very often doesn’t seem to think through how her actions will affect others. On the whole, she reminds me a lot of Evie Carnahan from The Mummy. The book also avoids the temptation to backhandedly put other women down, though. We don’t see a lot of them, but Isabella’s best friend from childhood is a romantic sort, fond of reading novels, a little flirtatious, highly imaginative, and described as “improper in what Amanda thought to be fashionable ways” — and though Isabella acknowledges she’s not like that at all, Manda also never gets painted in a truly unflattering light. Her passions aren’t condemned by the narrative — indeed, more than once Isabella admits that a little more of Manda’s empathy and social grace would do her good. But whatever the in-world society thinks of each of them, the book itself doesn’t suggest that either is inherently better than the other, and I appreciate that.

Then there are the dragons. In the world of this book, they are not fantastic, magical creatures of awe and wonderment — just another predator species, more difficult to study than lions or tigers, but without any mysticism attached to them. Isabella’s fascination is rooted in scientific wonder: why do their carcasses disintegrate so soon after death? What functions of their bones and skin allows them to fly? What creates their horrible breathe (which might be fire, or ice, or poison)? The approach is refreshing, particularly since we see that what are creatures of inspiration and intrigue in Isabella’s native Scirling are seen as nuisances in the places directly affected by them (rather the way a lot of modern apex predators are viewed today, really). I suspect an underlying theme will be one of Isabella’s desire to preserve dragons conflicting with the needs of the modern world. The artwork (by Todd Lockwood) augments the story beautifully, with beautiful sketches of dragons and their component parts, many deconstructed as though part of a medical text, showing bone and sinew (as on the front cover).

Overall, this book is a lot of fun, with a strong voice and a refreshing turn on a mythical creature I think long due for a new approach. I knock a point off because, well, I could’ve done with more dragons, especially in the last third of the book. They sort of become secondary to the mystery plot going on (and the mystery isn’t particularly well-crafted). Somewhere in the last arc, the balance between natural history and adventure story gets thrown off. Honestly, I’d really like to read the books that she refers to throughout — the actual texts on dragons which have, by the time she’s writing the memoir, made her so famous. Or at least pieces of them — I can envision a successful track where the writing moved back and forth between those and the memoir narrative.

According to Brennan’s website, there will be four more entries into this series, and I’m looking forward to picking up the next one, due out in March. I also enjoyed Brennan’s style well enough to consider looking into her prior series.

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A Gentleman Never Tells, by Juliana Gray

Title: A Gentleman Never TellsGentlemanNeverTells
Author: Juliana Gray
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 310 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 3.25 stars

I didn’t like this one as much as the first in the series, which is a little strange, since I really did like both the hero and the heroine. The story is still strong, but I ended up feeling that there was just so much more that could’ve been done with it.

A Gentleman Never Tells works in concert with Gray’s debut novel, A Lady Never Lies, telling the same story of three gentlemen and three ladies inadvertently renting the same Italian villa for the summer. In this book, Gray brings us the story of Countess Somerton, formerly Elizabeth Harewood, “wife of one of England’s most brutal and depraved aristocrats.” Or so we’re told. She’s fled England with her five-year-old son, hoping to raise her boy far away from her husband’s influence, but she doesn’t want to divorce, because she knows her husband could claim custody of their son. She’s sort of too tense to be enjoying herself in any fashion, and that doesn’t get better when one of the three men turns out to be a long lost love.

Roland Penhallow, younger brother of the Duke of Wallingford, leads a double life as a secret agent for the crown. While he pretends to be a shallow playboy for London society, he really spends much of his time out of the country doing… secretive things. I wish I could be more specific, but the book isn’t. This is just one of several under-used elements in the story. Roland’s agreed to join the trip to Italy with his brother and Finn because his position has been jeopardized. Someone’s accusing him of double-dealing, and though his superior believes him, until they can prove who’s setting him up, Roland needs to make himself inconspicuous.

The romance between Elizabeth and Roland is compelling enough, but I could’ve done with more on their background. We get a brief version of the story, but not a lot of insight. They met, fell in love, but then Roland had to leave the country on state business, and in his absence Elizabeth lets herself get talked into marrying Somerton for his wealth and position. Despite her protestations of virtue and her desire not to do anything scandalous, it’s a matter of hours after she sees Roland again before they’re going at it in a stable. It’s a good scene, but it does make Elizabeth seem a little haphazardly written. Gray sets up an interesting scenario — a really interesting scenario, considering she’s making her heroine an actual adulteress, which isn’t something I think I’ve seen before. But I don’t feel like she really did enough with it, besides a little exploration of just what you had to do to get a divorce in the 1890s. The stakes never feel but so high.

The villain of the piece, Earl Somerton, also failed to feel all that villainous. The reader hears over and over again that he’s a dissolute wretch, utterly depraved, and yet we never see any real evidence of this. He has a series of mistresses, apparently, which while not exactly admirable, in 1890 did not automatically make a man an utter debaucher. We only ever hear about two of them in any detail, and they both seem to have been participating with enthusiasm. He also seems to enjoy a particular relationship with his male secretary, but, however the Victorians may have felt about it, that certainly shouldn’t paint a character as depraved in a modern novel. Even at the height of the novel’s supposed tension, he shies away from doing anything truly dastardly.

Ultimately, A Gentleman Never Tells didn’t feel as innovative as A Lady Never Lies, and the innovation was a lot of what I liked about that book. Without that spirit, the book is a perfectly serviceable but not particularly exciting historical romance. It could as easily be a standard Regency as a late-Victorian, but for a few quirks of window-dressing. Gray doesn’t seem to use the situation she’s built as effectively in this book as in the first. So, this book gets a just-slightly-higher-than-average rating. I’m still interested to read the third book in the series, but this one didn’t grip me as much as the first.

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The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

BookmansTale

Title: The Bookman’s Tale
Author: Charlie Lovett
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical mystery
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4.25 stars

The Bookman’s Tale is the story of Peter, an antiquarian bookseller who, in the midst of grieving for his recently-departed wife, finds what appears to be a Victorian-era watercolor of her, pressed inside an old copy of Edmond Malone’s An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers (the book exposing William Henry Ireland’s forgeries of Shakespearean manuscripts). Though he knows the painting can’t possibly be of his wife, he feels compelled to find out the identity of both painter and subject. Hunting down this information leads him to stumble across an early edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the source material for The Winter’s Tale. While this would be an extraordinary find on its own, what makes this particular book even more astonishing is the marginalia: a series of notes apparently written by Shakespeare as he composed his play. Peter thinks that he may have realized his life-long dream to find evidence proving once and for all that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, but he knows enough of the history of forgeries to be wary of deception, and so he sets out on a quest to determine the book’s authenticity. He’s not the only one on the trail, however, and people with a lot to lose if Pandosto proves authentic are willing to kill to preserve its secrets.

The book moves along three separate but interrelated storylines: the first set in 1995, when Peter finds the copy of Pandosto and goes on his quest; the second set in the 1980s, when Peter begins his career in rare books at college, and which also charts his relationship with Amanda from their first meeting to its tragic end; and the third spanning from 1592 through the 1870s, tracking the transmission of one copy of Pandosto through time and through the exchange of many hands. The historical plotline delves into the world of playmaking and printing in the 16th and 17th centuries, showing what a cutthroat business it really could be, driven by rivalries, egos, and personal vendettas. Of the three storylines, the least relevant to the driving plot is the 1980s thread — but that is the storyline which gives this book its heart. It’s what makes you care about Peter, and it’s what makes you feel that his quest matters not only scholastically, but personally as well. It also provides a lot of the connective tissue which ultimately ties the loose ends of the story together, because the reader gets to see Peter learn his trade as well as learn to come out of his shell and engage with Amanda’s family and friends.

I received this book from the publisher, in exchange for a review, and I will freely admit that I had a lot of reservations — and I will just as freely admit that they were all, thankfully, rendered irrelevant. I worried this would be yet another Da Vinci Code knockoff, and while I have nothing against that genre of book in general, the quality can be alarmingly varied. I worried it would have an anti-Stratfordian bent, because I have learned to be leery when I see phrases like “prove the truth about Shakespeare’s identity” on book jackets (as turned out to be the problem with Interred with Their Bones). I worried that the dead-wife angle would make it too maudlin, too Gothic for my personal tastes (as was my trouble with the well-written but not-to-my-preference The Thirteenth Tale). I’m very happy to say that, as it turns out, I had nothing to fear on all three counts.

The biggest problem, I think, is that the summary really doesn’t do the book justice. For one thing, it makes it sound like the book is a lot more about the painting and the Victorian angle, when the far greater focus is on textual transmission and the development of the Shakespeare brand through the centuries. It’s also not nearly as mournful in tone as the jacket makes it out to be, nor is the vaguely paranormal element the jacket hints at as prevalent. Peter is a strong protagonist without needing to be an action hero, and I appreciate him for that. He is, definitely, a scholar and a bookseller, and at no point during the story does he morph into a super-spy or an Indiana Jones. He remains what he is, using his intelligence, his inquisitive nature, and his training in the field of early modern publishing to hunt down the mystery. I also appreciated that Lovett could give us an introverted protagonist with social anxiety problems and still have him be a strong character. Peter struggles a lot, both early in the 1980s storyline and in the 1995 storyline, with social interaction, but the reader gets to see him learn how to deal with that. He finds his safe spaces and safe people. Unfortunately, since Amanda was the one who drew him out to begin with, after her death, he retreats from the world and isolates himself entirely — so a lot of the story isn’t just his quest to find the truth behind Pandosto, it’s about him finding closure with her death and learning to be that more-adjusted version of himself again, even without her. It’s a deeper and more emotionally satisfying angle than I was expecting the book to have, and it strengthens the narrative.

I only have a few minor complaints, most of which didn’t really impede my enjoyment of the book: Some of the twists and turns are a little predictable, but that doesn’t bother me much. After all, as Shakespeare so often reminds us, knowing the plot isn’t the same as knowing the story. The Bookman’s Tale is less a fast-paced thriller and more a historical-psychological exploration with a dash of mystery, and I appreciate that Lovett didn’t seem to feel much need to hammer it into another form. The threat of danger towards the end is the only place it gets a little Da Vinci Code-y, but even there, The Bookman’s Tale strains plausibility far less than other books in this genre. There were only a few details throughout which I found far-fetched, such as a professor of Shakespeare at an esteemed university never having heard of Q1 Hamlet (but perhaps, in the 1980s, that could have been true? I don’t know). The secondary romantic interest felt a little tacked-on and unnecessary. The book definitely would have worked just as well without that aspect, but Lovett also isn’t too heavy-handed about it, so it’s easy to ignore.

I can cheerfully recommend The Bookman’s Tale as a great summer read for any Shakespeare enthusiast, but particularly, I think, for the sort who has a real interest in the early modern world of playmaking and printing. There’s more substance here than to your typical novel of this sort, and a lot more “Easter eggs” slipped in for the benefit of readers-in-the-know. I think those of a scholarly bent will appreciate the attention to detail which Lovett gives the history of textual transmission. The sections set during Shakespeare’s lifetime are full of wonderful details, intriguing cameos, and cheeky off-hand references. Lovett clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the playhouses and the print culture of early modern England. The Bookman’s Tale would actually be a great companion book to Shapiro’s Contested Will, in some ways, because it takes a fictionalized look at the true history of how Shakespeare mania grew over the centuries into a force which spawned forgeries and erroneous theories. It just released this week, so pick it up at your local bricks-and-mortar or on Amazon.

Cross-posted, with some additions and adjustments, from the American Shakespeare Center Education Blog.

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The Bridgertons: Happily Ever After, by Julia Quinn

Title: The Bridgertons: Happily Ever AfterBridgertonsEverAfter (Bridgertons #9)
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 374 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

The Bridgertons are one of the best-loved families in historical romance, and for good reason. JQ did something extraordinary, creating a family that was close-knit and loving, but not cloying — always believable, full of rivalries and frustrations, rife with inside jokes, and ultimately, always there for each other. Even more incredible, she managed to sustain the charm across eight books — easily twice as long as most romance novel series. I always thought that the first half of the series was stronger than the second half (as you can see from my reviews), but they’re all solid and enjoyable.

Because this family is so cherished by her fans, JQ decided to do something special — a collection of Second Epilogues, showing just what happens in Happy Ever After. Some of these had been released before, but as I don’t have an e-reader, I hadn’t read any of them, so they were all new to me. And they’re pretty delightful. In so many ways, diving into this book was like revisiting old friends and discovering them, not unchanged, but just as dear and warm and lovely as ever they were.

I’m not going to review each one individually, because it’s really the collection as a whole that made the biggest impression on me. I just love the idea of it — of showing that the story doesn’t end at the altar. The stories in this collection span a wide range of time, some of them coming just weeks after the corresponding book ends, others stretching decades into the characters’ future. The ones I ended up liking the best were in that second category — showing our beloved heroes and heroines years and years on and still madly in love with each other. I appreciate the… I don’t know, the reassurance? So much conventional “wisdom” states that passion inevitably fades over time, that fires bank down to embers, and you’re lucky if you have warmth and comfort enough to sustain a relationship past that. But I have always wanted to believe that that doesn’t have to be true — not for everyone, anyway. And the Bridgertons show me that in fictional form — couples who still desire each other even after many children, even after their own children have children. Who still tease and laugh and flirt, decades into their relationships. Who continue to face challenges and continue to grow stronger from them. I love it.

The two Second Epilogues that stick out in my mind the most are Kate & Anthony’s and Francesca and Michael’s — unsurprising, since those are among my favourite books in the series, anyway. With Kate and Anthony, we get a glorious return to Pall Mall and the Mallet of Death. This Second Epilogue is as cheeky and tempestuous as I could’ve wished, really recapturing the spirit of the original. Francesca’s Second Epilogue, much like her own story, is told in a much different tone, slower and more introspective, but absolutely brimming with passionate emotion. Colin and Penelope’s was, sadly, one of the less sterling sections — sad because they vie for the top spot of my favourite Bridgerton novel. It’s a midquel, actually, for To Sir Philip, With Love, where we find out how Eloise learned Penelope’s great secret; unfortunately, the events aren’t that gripping, and the story sort of meanders.

I do sort of wish that at least one couple out of the eight had remained childless but content with that, even if it wouldn’t really be historically accurate, just because it’d be nice to see childfree families represented in the genre at all — but, I know that’s sort of an unreasonable request, given the market. I also wish that Violet’s novella had been longer — hell, I wish she’d get a whole book of her own, but JQ has always said that will never be the case. But I would’ve liked to have seen more of her and Edmund’s courtship — and of their marriage. The vignettes didn’t fully satisfy, as JQ moves on to the tragedy and its aftermath rather quickly. I see where she wanted to go with it, to show Violet’s entire arc, but I would’ve appreciated a little more

I very much can’t recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t previously read all of the Bridgerton novels — but, of course, I recommend those to all readers of romance, so this can just be the cherry on the sundae. And I do feel it fair to warn that there isn’t a lot of heat in any of these vignettes — JQ drops a few sizzling moments the readers’ way (in Anthony’s and Francesca’s stories, notably, which may also contribute to my favorable impression of those), but on the whole, these stories just aren’t long enough to sustain real sex scenes. By their very nature, they also don’t stand alone very well. Nostalgia definitely plays a large role in my enjoyment of them, but if you’ve missed the Bridgertons as I have, then I thoroughly recommend returning to their world with Happily Ever After.

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A Lady Never Lies, by Juliana Gray

Title: A Lady Never LiesLadyNeverLies
Author: Juliana Gray
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 311
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This is a historical romance with a unique premise, all the more surprising since it is, in fact, loosely borrowed from Shakespeare. Gray transposes the improbable plot of Love’s Labour’s Lost to 1890, and somehow, it works — largely because she doesn’t feel compelled to hold to it too strictly, allowing the “Little Academe” of Navarre to inspire her work without hemming it in. Phineas Burke, a successful scientist whose inventions have made him quite wealthy, convinces his friend the Duke of Wallingford and the Duke’s younger brother, Roland, to spend a year with him at a remote Italian villa, away from the torments of matchmaking mamas and the evils of over-indulgence. Finn wants to spend the year perfecting the engine for his electric automobile so that he can enter it in a race in Rome.

Enter the ladies. Thanks to a mix-up (or to deliberate interference on the part of the real estate broker?), the three gentlemen have rented the same estate as Lady Alexandra Morley, her sister Abigail, and her friend Lady Lilibet Somerton. Alexandra has fled England ahead of the creditors left to her by her late husband and a nephew with catastrophically poor investment strategies. Lilibet has fled an abusive husband,  with her five-year-old son in tow, and while her circumstances are not detailed yet, I’m sure they will be in her book. Stuck together for the foreseeable future, the two groups make a bet on which will crack and head back to England first. Or which will break their vows of chastity and isolation first? It’s a little blurry just what, exactly, constitutes losing the bet.

There are hijinks worthy of Shakespeare throughout the book, as Finn and Alexandra experience a powerful attraction to each other but have to hide it from the others in the house. Finn expects to hate socialite Alexandra, but finds himself charmed by her forthright nature and startling intelligence. They are both imperfect characters with shady pasts, but their ragged edges fit together nicely. There’s also a charming air of rustic mystery surrounding the story, as the housekeeper and groundskeeper interfere freely with everyone’s business, occasionally dropping hints about an old curse upon the villa that needs to be broken — I can only assume we’ll be hearing more about that later on.

There are a few things that don’t come together, and I honestly don’t know if they’ll get better treatment in the remaining two books or not. The whole concept of the bet is sort of flimsy, as is Alexandra’s decision to sort-of-kind-of-not-really engage in industrial espionage. Turns out some of her nephew’s investments were in an automobile company, and she half-heartedly tries to spy on Finn to get some ideas that might save the company… but you never get the feeling that she actually has strong intent there, and the story swerves away from it pretty quickly. The chemistry between Finn and Alexandra carries us along far better than that abortive attempt at intrigue.

Fortunately, Gray doesn’t pull Shakespeare’s ending stunt on us, so don’t worry that you’ll finish this book feeling as awkwardly interrupted as I always do at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost. My biggest complaint is that I feel it could’ve been longer — the standard 370-380 pages rather than this slightly scant 311 would’ve given a little more room for character exploration. I totally believed in Alexandra’s and Finn’s attraction to and affection for each other, but the initial draw felt a little lacking. It also might have smoothed over some of the leaps in the timeline — the book hops along rapidly, but I could’ve done with a bit more idling, particularly at the beginning, to see them all settle into the house rather than jumping so soon to a month into their tenancy. But — I’m someone who likes world-building a lot, whether fantasy or historical, so I will always permit an author that indulgence. I know not everyone’s patience runs so long, and so many readers might appreciate the rapid pace of the novel.

I found the premise of this story refreshing, both in terms of the time period and the details behind the plotline. Gray does herself some great favours by breaking the mold in those ways, putting us in Italy rather than England (even with English characters) and moving to the opposite end of the century. It gives her more room to play, I think, and she clearly has had a lot of fun with it. She sprinkles the story with as much historical veracity as invention and artistic license, and sharp-eyed history buffs will enjoy the cameos.

I also appreciated that Gray didn’t give away everything with regards to the other couples. We sort of see them dash in and out as teasers, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of overlap in what scenes Gray chooses to show us in this book. I believe that will help this series escape some of the problems I had with Julia Quinn’s Dukes of Wyndham duologyA Lady Never Lies was a fun read, unusual for a historical romance but not in ways that were distracting or disturbing, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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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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