So I have a confession to make. When I read Gail Carriger’s previous Finishing School books, Etiquette and Espionage and Curtsies and Conspiracies, I hadn’t actually read the Parasol Protectorate books. On one hand, this lacuna in my library helped in that it allowed me to approach the Finishing School books as a hypothetical first-time YA reader might, without too much of the previous series to color my views—not knowing, for example, that the prototype aetherographic transmitter that everyone is so spun up about in the first book is in regular use by the time of Changeless, some few decades hence in Carriger’s world.
So—in the interim between Curtsies and Conspiracies and the new Waistcoats and Weaponry, I’ve caught myself up with the Parasol Protectorate, and it’s proved to be something of a mixed blessing in returning to the Finishing School. I appreciate certain characters more, but I also know things the characters don’t—and won’t for a while—and reading around that is unexpectedly difficult.
Such knowledge can’t help but throw Waistcoats and Weaponry a little out of balance, because one of the novel’s main plot events doesn’t actually completely pay off until quite late in the Parasol Protectorate books. Said event is the sudden disgrace of the Kingair pack, the werewolf family of Sidheag Maccon, who is one of the bosom friends of protagonist Sophronia Temminnick. The pack’s second-in-command has been exposed as the leader of a plot against the Queen’s life, and for his treason has been killed by the Kingair pack leader, Sidheag’s many-times-great grandfather Lord Maccon; he in turn has abandoned the pack and run off to make a new life in London. Sidheag sees no other option open to her: she must quit Miss Geraldine’s Finishing School and head north to Scotland to try and keep her pack together. And of course Sophronia and her friend Dimity must expedite her truancy with skulduggery, a dirigible, and a stolen train—after all, what are friends for?
Meanwhile, automaton servants are afflicted with a strange and sudden widespread malfunction, which manifests rather spectacularly at Sophronia’s brother’s engagement ball and which may be tied to the anti-supernatural faction known as the Picklemen. And as if that weren’t enough, Sophronia must continue to juggle the affections of the handsome, kohl-eyed nobleman’s son Felix Mersey and the equally handsome, lowly-born sootie Phineas Crow (familiarly known as Soap).
Carriger’s emphasis on Sophronia as a paragon of charm, beauty, and intelligencer skills occasionally has veered towards grating, but the author now begins to gently introduce the idea that Sophronia’s tendency to win whatever challenge she puts her mind to doesn’t always make her right. And the fact that her adversary Monique de Pelouse—now a drone to the vampire hive of Westminster—is still a hateful, bigoted snob doesn’t automatically make her actions completely wrong. Meanwhile, Dimity is shown to have more backbone than has been suggested by her tendency to comically overwrought femininity (including an extremely reliable tendency to faint at the sight of blood). The girls are growing up.
As are the boys. Dimity’s brother Pillover has grown into a sulky adolescent, and Sophronia’s romantic triangle set up in Curtsies and Conspiracies grows more acute here. Thankfully Carriger sees her way to resolving it, more or less—at least one of the candidates seems to definitively remove himself from the running through his actions. Felix Mersey is frankly so smarmy that you wonder why Sophronia keeps toying with him, family connections and potential social advantages of such a match be damned—but clearly she enjoys the effects of her feminine wiles (enhanced now by Lady Linette’s classes in seduction); she’s never been above a touch of smugness. Her relationship with Soap is at once touching and problematic. Their emotional bond runs deep and leads to a profound change in both their lives in the final chapter—but she is a white upper-middle class girl and he a black working-class boy, and their romance falls discomfitingly close to what N.K. Jemisin identifies as the trope of the “exotic interracial romance” in steampunk and Victorian fantasy.
The fact that the plot of Waistcoats and Weaponry is the most closely linked to that of the Parasol Protectorate books may not actually serve it that well. The importance of Sidheag’s storyline in the larger scheme of Carriger’s supernatural steampunk world is obvious to anyone who’s read the previous series; to those who haven’t, it may seem frustratingly vague and unresolved. Arguably, its only real purpose here is to kick off the road trip that tests the alliances and bonds of friendship amongst Sophronia and her crew and thus doesn’t need to be any more than what it is.
Waistcoats and Weaponry isn’t the strongest entry in the Finishing School series. As with Curtsies and Conspiracies, the finale of the book includes farewells to yet more interesting supporting characters, and the occasionally too-precious whimsy of the earlier books seems increasingly at odds with the maturing girls and the darkening story. The increasing need to connect the Finishing School to the Parasol Protectorate is also beginning to complicate matters. Nevertheless, Carriger continues to provide very well the chiefest pleasure of her series: the depiction of friendship among a group of very different young women.