I just finished reading Manners and Mutiny, the fourth and final book in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series, which charts the education of Sophronia through her years aboard a floating school for young women intelligencers (spies). Set in the same world as Gail’s The Parasol Protectorate series and the Custard Protocol series, and before either, Finishing School is a YA (young adult) series every bit as wickedly intelligent and fun as her adult novels.
1—Manners Made Interesting
When fourteen-year-old tomboy Sophronia Temminnick learns she’s being sent away to finishing school, she’s horrified. But the lessons at Madamoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality are far from ordinary. Flower arranging is done with as much care to concealment as to beauty. Perfume is used for blinding the eyes as well as enticing the nose. And when choosing a dress, one must consider the event, the current styles, and if the fabric will show bloodstains.
I cannot emphasize enough how much fun this series is. Victorian manners are both the cover for and the means of gathering intelligence and performing assassinations (though there’s more of the former than the latter). That combined with Sophronia’s biting wit and observant commentary on it all, makes for an engaging read. I’ve never had so much fun watching a girl become a lady—all while rappelling all over the sides of a massive dirigible. It’s nice to have a story where skirts aren’t incompatible with adventure.
2—A Well-Built World Gets Built Out Even Further
The Finishing School series is whole unto itself while expanding upon the world built before but set after it. It’s fascinating to both see earlier forms of the world’s technology—the clangermaids and buttlingers, the very first crystalline valves, the mechanimals—and meet some familiar characters in their younger years. Yet no one picking up these books first would feel they were missing anything.
There’s the politicking, both supernatural and not—I wouldn’t call anything in these books mundane. Though I’m not sure what else you’d expect from a school training spies, with both a vampire and a werewolf on staff. Not to mention a mad lady scientist who’s saner than most, and nun with a pension for poison. The school, the supernaturals, and the Picklemen (a secret society made up of most ungentlemanly Gentlemen) all have their own agendas. And of course you can’t leave out the Flywaymen and their balloons, not with them causing so much trouble. And Sophronia is tossed into the middle of it all, trying to sort her way through and decide who’s side she’s on—if any.
3—Nothing and No One is Just What They Appear
Finishing School is one of the most complex series I’ve encountered, in any medium. Complex, but not convoluted. I think this is because the characters are complex, with their own agendas and motives and loyalties, few of which are readily apparent. It’s not about Byzantine schemes—though upon reflection there must be some as Byzantine scheming is a vampire pastime. But the story is about figuring out motives and people, rather than ‘plot’.
It helps too that we stay with Sophronia for pretty much the whole series, so we encounter information as she does rather than having to jump from character to character with each new plot point. And everyone stays true to their own agendas; no one in retrospect is actively working against their plans. Sophronia may not understand all the other characters’s motives, but the author does and it makes a huge difference.
Everyone—friends, enemies, teachers, family—have hidden sides and reasons that Sophronia is learning to suss out, including her own. Everyone has secrets. And we don’t get to find them all out. That’s the other reason the plot works so well, I think, despite all the turns it takes. There’s much we’re left to suppose and surmise, instead of every little thing being spelled out. I did say this was an intelligent series.
4—The Ugly Sides
Despite the light-hearted tone this series takes, Gail Carriger doesn’t ignore the darker sides of her world either. Through Vieve, Sophronia becomes friends with the sooties—the boys who labor in the underbelly of the airship, keeping its boilers stoked. She gets to see the effects of class barriers on her friends, from lack of education and opportunity to how her own respected teachers don’t even think to consider the risk to the sooties’s lives. And then of course, there’s Soap, who’s station and coal-dark skin means she could never have a proper life with him no matter how much in love.
Then there’s intelligence work itself. Though early on one schoolmate declares her intention to murder her first husband, when she gets one, this is tempered by the fact none of these young girls has killed before. It could just be the romance of the notion (some of them come from mad scientist families and have male relatives who went or are going to Bunson’s, a school aiming to turn out evil geniuses). But as the books progress and Sophronia grows older, the violence—present from the first book—grows more real, the consequences more dire. She’ll watch people she loves be shot—one of them fatally—and in the last book, she kills. She’ll know betrayal more than once, and there is nothing Sophronia values above loyalty. She also get to see the files of agents filed under ‘lost’ and realize how disposable intelligence workers are to their employers. The very employment she’s about to enter.
The ugly sides of this world aren’t ignored or sugared over, but the story doesn’t devolve into being either grimdark or preachy. Ms. Carriger maintains a consistent tone and voice throughout the story and I appreciate that.
5—Well and Truly Satisfying
Ms. Carriger has a talent for wrapping up a book nicely, leaving the reader satisfied while still leaving room for the next story. The threads are all sufficiently bound up but not so securely as to prevent their weaving into the next book. I’ve been satisfied at the end of each individual novel, but the last one takes not only the cake but the whole damn dessert cart.
The Pickleman matter that began in Etiquette & Espionage finally resolves in Manners & Mutiny, quite spectacularly. As do the romantic matters, which I normally don’t care for, but is so well done here I enjoyed it. I won’t spoil everything, I’ll just say that I love the arrangement Sophronia comes to, both in her personal affairs and in the affairs of the school, not to mention the empire. Each book has ramped up the action and the finale does not disappoint. Grand action, explosions, secrets revealed! I can’t wait to go back and re-read the series, picking up on all the little clues. It’s a great ride and I intend to take it again.