Book Review: Waistcoats & Weaponry
The third book in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series hit the shelves yesterday and picks up immediately where the second title Curtsies & Conspiracies ended, with Sophronia and her friends at their floating finishing school (Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality), concerned about the mental state of their vampire instructor, Professor Braithwope, for whom Sophronia feels especially responsible. Concern which is quickly pushed aside when word arrives that Sidheag’s grandfather’s wolf pack is in trouble, and she disappears with another instructor, Captain Niall (also a werewolf.)
After two weeks with no word from Sidheag, the young ladies are understandably worried as they make their way to Sophronia’s brother’s Masquerade engagement ball. Dimity’s brother, Pillover, accompanies them and has been tasked with delivering a secret message from Sidheag to Sophronia only. In doing so, he manages to put them in a compromising position which leads to Sophronia’s mother demanding an ‘understanding’ between them. In other words, they are secretly engaged. Sidheag unexpectedly appears during the ball, accompanied by both Captain Niall and Lord Slaughter, the dewan (leader of all English werewolves.) Sidheag is distraught and determined to join her pack in Scotland, even though the two older male werewolves leave her in the care of Sophronia, intending for her to return to finishing school while they ‘deal’ with the unpleasantness.
Sophronia and Dimity hatch a plan to help Sidheag reach her pack in Scotland, but first they will have to all dress as boys and liberate the airdinghy from its hiding place as a part of Sophronia’s mother’s gazebo (as well as the entire supply of helium her mother has laid in for the masquerade ball.) With the help of Felix Golbourne, Lord Mersey, Sophronia’s erstwhile Pickleman admirer and an invited guest at the ball, as well as Soap, Sophronia’s sootie friend and uninvited guest at the ball, they take advantage of a malfunctioning of every mechanical in the house at the height of the ball. It is very strange – the mechanicals all simultaneously begin either racing or twirling on their tracks, fill the room with steam, and then sing “Rule, Britannia!” in unison before completely shutting down. The ball erupts in chaos and the group makes its escape.
Once aloft, they search for a train heading north. They manage to land the airdinghy on a very suspicious looking train which seems to be mostly empty. It is, of course, carrying their nemesis, Monique de Pelouse. All of the story threads begin to intertwine into a rich tapestry at this point as the reader comes to understand, along with Sophronia, that an intricate intrigue is afoot within the kingdom.
If none of the above makes sense to you, perhaps it is because you’ve never read a steampunk novel about a Victorian era spy school for girls disguised as a Young Ladies finishing academy held in a large floating airship. With supernatural creatures. And multiple warring factions, both amongst the ‘regular’ humans and the supernaturals. It’s a little involved, to say the least. The first book in the series (Etiquette & Espionage) was available on our fall book fair and I recommended it to several students, one replied to my description with, “I never would have thought to put SO MANY different things in one book! I’ll take it!”
I really love this series, both for its intricately detailed plot, description, and characterization, but also for it’s depiction of society of the time period, especially the politics of power and the plight of the powerless. And, like all good supernatural/human mystery and intrigue stories (Buffy, anyone?) it has a fantastic sense of humor. One of my favorite quotes comes from Sidheag, when explaining the change in topic for weapons training, “We’re moving on from deadly library supplies to something else this evening.”
My favorite story about this series, however, comes from Mr. Horton, one of my language arts teachers (who occasionally guest posts book reviews for us.) He brought a book to me during book fair to ask if I thought he’d like it, but I’d never heard of it. I suggested that he try Etiquette & Espionage; he looked skeptically at the cover, but I think my description swayed him because he ended up buying it. He loved it. The only problem he had was with the cover, “I don’t think they’re marketing this book correctly.” Really, my over six foot tall African American football coach isn’t immediately drawn to a cover featuring a teenaged girl in Victorian Era dress? You don’t say. He is my biggest SFF fan on staff, though, so it was a safe bet.
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About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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