The Short Version: Sophronia Temminnick isn’t quite the young lady her mother hoped she would be. She prefers to climb trees, take things apart, and be altogether unladylike – and so she is enrolled in a finishing school. Except this finishing school, as it turns out, is a place where young women of particular quality can embrace their outre behaviors and become the most highly trained espionage agents. AND well-learned members of society, too.
The Review: Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate series is one of my favorites. It’s a delightful romp through a steampunk Victorian England, complete with vampires and werewolves becoming a part of society. There is humor, bawdiness, adventure, horror, and also some really great social commentary in the guise of a silly fantasy novel. And we all know, the best fantasy novels are the ones that sneak the social commentary in between their unassuming paperback covers.
So I was delighted when I heard that Ms. Carriger would be returning to the world of the Protectorate, both with a sequel series (which, oh man, cannot wait to read Prudence) as well as a prequel-adjacent series. I say prequel-adjacent because it does not directly proceed the adventures of Alexia & co, just takes place some 20 years before in the same universe. Of course, this means there are some overlaps, although I think it’s more fun for you to discover those for yourself… and you certainly don’t need to know the later books to enjoy these. For the kids who come to this series first, they’ve got a great series ahead – and for the adults who started there and wanted more, Finishing School will give you the Carriger fix you need… just a little toned-down.
Of course it is – toned down, I mean. Alexia is 26 in the Protectorate books and Sophronia is 14 here. While they’re quite similar in many ways, their understanding of… adult interactions is quite obviously different. This is not to say that Carriger talks down to her audience, though. On the contrary, she delivers a middle grade (or new adult or whatever the hell we’re calling them, generationally) novel that speaks to what kids who are 13, 14, 15 already know from watching pretty much anything on television. She’s not ripping any bodices here but she’s also not shrinking away from the fact that her main characters are developing – both physically and metaphorically – and that the inherent issues that come with growing up are worth talking about openly and honestly.
And this is where Carriger continues to excel, both in the SFF field and in the literary field at large: her openness and honesty. You never feel like she’s moralizing but she manages to push out a considerable progressive stance on gender roles & identification, ethnicity, sexuality, and class. And she does it in a way that, if a younger kid (or, hey, maybe even some adults) were to read this, they might have a sudden awakening. For example, the “sootie” called Soap who befriends Sophronia (and where there might be some burgeoning romantic interest for the lady) is black – and Sophronia doesn’t think anything of it. Later, when other characters comment on it, she says as much with a quick “why does it matter” and they move on. It doesn’t matter to her that Vieve wears men’s clothes, but instead that she has a good heart and a desire to help the good. Hopefully, kids who might be growing up in less-tolerant environments read a book like this and say “oh, wait, maybe it doesn’t matter that so-and-so is different from me in these ways.”
Or at least we can hope.
But I’ve mentioned a few things now that skirt around the one issue I haven’t addressed yet: the actual plot of the novel. It does get off to a slightly bumpy start, being thrown into a society novel but also coming to understand that werewolves and vampires are known to society… there are some world-building things that I think I was able to understand having read the PP quintet but that a new reader might scramble to catch up with. Still, in relatively short order, you’re swept away by Carriger’s inventiveness: a finishing school that is, in fact, a giant set of dirigibles? Highwaymen who are, in fact, flywaymen (meaning they rob people on the highways via tiny aircraft)? A school for evil geniuses? It’s funny and it’s smart and it’s absolutely, unabashedly pleasurable – to both the reader and to itself. The story seems not only fun to the author but fun to the people inside of it, although the MacGuffin of it all is pretty MacGuffin-y – at least, so far. Still, it sets just enough of a hook that the book can stand alone but that there’s the pull to know more about this world, to see what comes next. Happily, the fourth and final book in the series won’t even arrive til this fall – so there’s much adventure to come!
Rating: 4 out of 5. It took a little time getting used to the new characters and figuring out one’s orientation in the world – and I’ll admit, on a personal level, to missing some of the bawdier humor & language that made The Parasol Protectorate so damn entertaining. But Carriger’s wit and inventiveness shine through and by the end of the book, I was just delighted to be back – and to see, quite happily, that the series retains Carriger’s important social progressiveness despite being for a younger audience. Plus, it’s just a damn fun read and I can’t wait to get the next one.