Series Review: Finishing School, by Gail Carriger

Finishing School
by Gail Carriger
YA Fantasy/Steampunk
Published 2013-2015 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

  1. Etiquette and Espionage
  2. Curtsies and Conspiracies
  3. Waistcoats and Weaponry
  4. Manners and Mutiny

When discussions of YA Fantasy arise, talk of tropes and clichés invariably follows. While many readers believe that the mere inclusion of a trope indicates a lack of creativity on a writer’s part,  the mere inclusion of a trope is not a bad thing. It’s when a trope is written poorly that it grates upon the reader’s nerves to the point when they would rather fling the book out of a moving vehicle than read another page. A well-written trope, on the other hand, can provide a sense of familiarity in a landscape that might otherwise feel strange and disorienting.

Case in point: Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books, which are prequels to her successful Parasol Protectorate books, an adult fantasy/steampunk series set during the late Victorian era. The Finishing School series is for Young Adult readers, and takes place a generation before the Parasol Protectorate and details the teen years of certain characters who appear in the original series.

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia Temminnick is the youngest daughter of a well-to-do family from the unfashionable countryside. Though her sisters are concerned with ballgowns and marriage prospects, Sophronia would rather climb trees than climb into carriages, take things apart than take tea, and is most definitely not concerned with the latest trends in hats and gloves. At her wit’s end over her daughter’s unladylike antics, Sophronia’s mother sends her to what she thinks is a normal finishing school in the hopes that Sophronia will learn to be a proper young lady. Neither she nor Sophronia knows that Madamemoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is not the average school for girls. In addition to learning about fashion and flirtation, the girls learn about espionage and assassination. With style, of course.

In Etiquette and Espionage, Sophronia is sent off to finishing school as punishment for her childish hijinks, but thanks to a bit of attempted flyway robbery by airborne highwaymen, Sophronia gets wrapped up in the case of a missing prototype. When she assigns herself the mission of finding the prototype before a school rival can lay hands on it, she discovers that she has an unexpected aptitude for espionage. And also that fashion isn’t so terrible.

In Curtsies and Conspiracies, Sophronia and her friends have become slightly more adept at sneaking about and spying, though Sophronia is the best at climbing around the outside of the dirigible they call home. It’s hardly ladylike behavior, but Sophronia is more worried about a conspiracy that could threaten the supernatural beings– vampires and werewolves– of England, and from there could upset English society forever.

In Waistcoats and Weaponry, Sophronia and company engage in a bit of train-napping when an upheavel of the Scottish werewolf family forces her friend Sidheag Maccon to return home to help set things right again. Of course, helping Sidheag means Sophronia and Dimity will have to leave the best ball of the season early, but when it comes to loyalties, one really must put friends above fashion.

In the final installment, Manners and Mutiny, conspiracies and politics collide most unfortunately on Madame Geraldine’s Academy– and during tea! Sophronia discovers the real motives of the dastardly Picklemen and must put all of her newfound skills to work to save her classmates, her friends, and possibly England itself.

In the Finishing School series, Gail Carriger gives us YA done right, showing that books meant for teenagers don’t always have to entail melodrama and heavy-handed tropes. Sophronia is a smart young woman, but she’s not a ‘chosen one’, a ‘lost princess’ or anything like that. She’s not going out to defeat an evil empire by herself, and the fate of the kingdom doesn’t rest on which one of two boys she likes best. She has her own particular gifts and uses them to her best ability, but she knows she’s not perfect, and so relies upon her friends to help her. She also makes mistakes, and learns over time that her foolishness has consequences for others. In other words, she spends the series growing up and growing wiser.

This isn’t to say that the Finishing School books are dour and dull because Sophronia is learning these kinds of life lessons. Quite the contrary. Carriger has a rare wit that brings Victorian England to life even though it is not the Victorian England we are accustomed to. There are werewolves and vampires, mechanical servants and dirigibles, as well as espionage schools for girls and evil genius schools for boys. Carriger weaves in the motifs of the steampunk genre with those of the paranormal to a brilliant effect, combining them with the kind of understatement used by some of the best Victorian humorists.

Thanks to its charming characters, sparkling humor, adventure, and Carriger’s light-handed employment of common YA tropes, the Finishing School series is a delightful set of books about an intelligent young woman coming of age in a fascinating alternate version of England.

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