It’s a delight to return to the elegant steampunk world of Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series, the YA prequels to her Parasol Protectorate novels. Sophronia Temminnick, now fifteen, is excelling at her studies at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School for Girls—indeed, at her six-month review, she receives the highest marks ever achieved at the school.
Academic accomplishment is all well and good, but afterward, Sophronia has a host of new trials. Her schoolmates shun her—including her closest friend Dimity (who still faints dead away at the sight of blood)—and her arch-rival Monique de Pelouse hates her as much as ever.
There are conspiracies afoot with dire implications for werewolves and vampires, and these plots have made Dimity and her brother Pillover into targets for kidnappers. Sophronia’s young friend Vieve ropes her into a scheme to get Vieve—disguised as a boy, as is her custom—into Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique (“…sort of a sibling school to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. If one thought of those siblings as hostile and estranged.”), and she learns more about the exact nature of the “prototype” device from the previous book and the potentially world-changing uses to which it can be put. And she must also confront the new and confounding challenge presented by the opposite sex, when a teacher and “a selection of some of the top-ranked boys” from Bunson and Lacroix’s join the girls of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s on an excursion to that place of wonders, London.
Everything that was delightful about Etiquette and Espionage is back in Curtsies and Conspiracies. Sophronia continues to be a wonderfully interesting heroine—perceptive, resourceful, and clever quite literally to a fault. “You only think in terms of the game,” says the fortuneteller Madame Spetuna. And Sophronia plainly relishes the adventures afforded her by her skills and the reader shares her pleasure as she wields a wrist-mounted grappling hook, spies on her teachers, and undertakes her first ever character assassination. (Actual murder, if it comes at all, is a matter of far more advanced study.) But Sophronia is due to learn that the “game” has very real consequences: potentially deadly ones, even when it seems that only character is on the line. Sophronia will have to decide if she truly has the nerve to continue to play, even at the cost of others’ lives.
As if that weren’t enough, Sophronia also has to field the calculated flirtations of Felix Mersey, heir to a duchy, and the more honest and more complicated affections of Phineas “Soap” Crow, one of the sooties whose below-decks efforts keep the dirigible of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s school afloat. Love triangles are, of course, a staple of YA fiction, but rather than dominating the narrative, it’s just one of many complications that Sophronia must negotiate, with varying degrees of success. Heartbreak may be averted for now, but it’s almost certainly on the horizon.
The tone that Carriger achieves is unique: the Finishing School books are both comedies of manners and high-action adventures, and are at once decorous, satirical, and often quite funny—there is a character named Lord Dingleproops, of all things. But she is also capable of taking some genuinely dark turns as the realities of adulthood start to intrude on the lives of Sophronia and her friends. It’s one thing to have a slightly ridiculous vampire as one’s etiquette teacher, but quite another to bluff one’s way into the home of a vampire clan just as a the body of a failed vampiric metamorphosis is being carried out. And the question remains as to exactly for what purpose Sophronia and her schoolmates are being “finished,” and how much agency she will have in her own fate when she embarks on her career as an intelligencer.
There’s so much to enjoy in Carriger’s fictional world: finely-honed humor, page-turner plotting, and a cast of characters dominated by a wide array of complex, interesting women and girls. Wherever Sophronia’s adventures take her next, it’s very much something to look forward to.