Sometimes, at least for me, it takes a second book in a series to really sell me on the series. That’s good news for most authors, I suppose, in that, much like pilot season, if you have an interesting enough concept or characters or writing or some combination of the above, even if the first go falls a little flat for my personal tastes, I’ll still give you a second chance. And it’s good news for me, because then I’m given the privilege of getting to thoroughly enjoy something. Although there are a lot of examples for this, I’m thinking in particular of Gail Carriger’s Curtsies & Conspiracies, the second book of the Finishing School series. The title (as well as the first book, Etiquette & Espionage) essentially spell out what the series is about, learning how to be an intelligencer while also learning how to be a lady. It’s about as much fun as it sounds. Spoilers to follow…
Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is, obviously, a finishing school. But it’s also a school where young ladies of quality are learning the arts of subterfuge, intelligence-gathering, and the occasional hand-to-hand combat and poisoning skills, all in the aims of becoming intelligencers after finishing. The secret of the school offering a major in spy tactics is so secret that even the headmistress doesn’t know about it (one of the girls’ tests is to never let Mademoiselle Geraldine find out). So there are classes in dancing, poisons, etiquette, escape maneuvers, manners, and of course all the different ways you can send out a code (including embroidered pillows). They are, of course, sister-rival schools with Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique, the boys’ school for young evil geniuses of means. In addition to all of this, you have extensive vampire politics, an aristocrat raised by werewolves, and a dark boys’ club and a dark gentlemen’s club called the Pistons and the Picklemen, respectively. Not to mention the part where Mademoiselle Geraldine’s itself is actually a massive dirigible.
Our heroine is Sophronia Temminnick, covertly recruited to be a potential agent due to her intensely logical mind and propensity for trouble. When C&C opens, Sophronia and her best friend Dimity are getting their six-month evaluations on both, to borrow the phrase, etiquette and espionage. Sophronia scores the highest evaluation marks in Geraldine’s history, as her mind is more or less designed for intelligence-gathering. I’m a little inclined to roll my eyes at this particular development, as it’s not exactly unusual for a protagonist to be history-making, and it frankly is kind of boring (I do so enjoy a hero who is occasionally middling at best), but while it turns out that Sophronia was in fact holding back her full skills on the exam, it also turns out that the academy mistresses have somewhat inflated the entire experience, to isolate Sophronia from the other students as a test.
There’s a lot about this world that comes across as slightly overblown and silly, but it’s silly in the best way possible, the fun kind of silly. I feel like this is steampunk intended for people who had convinced themselves they didn’t like steampunk. Often genre books are very serious, with some pithy one-liners here and there from the underskilled sidekick, but this series is just straight-up fun, and no one is really a sidekick or comic relief, because the comedy is found just in the universe itself. Because of course the somewhat villainous organization is called the Picklemen, and are taken seriously, even when one of their highest ranks (if not the highest rank) is Gherkin status. And we’re expected to entertain the notion that a perfectly eligible, and even desirable, love interest (thankfully not one for Sophronia) is someone with the surname Dingleproops. (Dingleproops is the Mr. Collins of names.)
In C&C, Sophronia has to deal with being isolated from her peers, which is supposed to teach her a lesson about teamwork, although it’s unfortunate timing, as her best friend Dimity is an unfortunate pawn in a dastardly plot. It all has to do with a civil war between the anti-supernatural Picklemen (so distinguished by the stripe of green on their top hat, naturally) and the Westminster vampire hive, standing in, I suppose, for vampires at large. They both want control over travel in the aethersphere, which is a thing now. (Look, I’ll be frank with you, steampunk is usually not my thing at all; all of this blah-blah goes right over my head like so many airdinghies. That being said, and knowing as you now know that I either roll my eyes, or they glaze over, or both, when any bits about gadgetry and plot take place, I genuinely loved every second of this book.) Dimity’s parents, the Plumleigh-Teignmotts, are former graduates of Bunson’s and Geraldine’s, respectively, who decided to pursue love over science (fraternization between the schools is to be expected, given that they have not-dissimilar aims in the long run, but in general, the students themselves are not expected to co-mingle). But they still pursue science a little bit, and have helped develop a valve designed for use in aether-travel. And because both the vampires and the Picklemen want control, poor Dimity and her brother Pillover find themselves at the heart of a kidnapping plot.
In addition, there’s Monique, the girl having her coming-out ball at eighteen, whom the school is recommending she finish only as a lady and not as a spy, who may or may not work for the vampires, and is definitely an overly smug and pompous thorn in Sophronia’s side. There’s Phineas B. Crow, also known as Soap, Sophronia’s sootie friend in the boiler room, who has a crush on Sophronia and helps her with schemes, though she’s not sure she feels the same way back. There’s Vieve, short for Genevieve, gadgetry enthusiast, scamp, niece to a professor, and pretending to be a boy so she can be enrolled in Bunson’s. And there’s Bumbersnoot, a mechanimal sausage dog who eats coal and often saves the day. There are non-puppy mechanicals everywhere, usually in servant positions. One of Sophronia’s teachers is a werewolf. Another is a vampire (he teaches manners and etiquette).
Sophronia herself is very interesting, in that she looks at actually everything as a test of espionage, and applies logic to actually everything. She has an excessively clinical mind and is constantly planning and analyzing and plotting. This is useful on occasion, especially since the school seems to get itself involved in a lot of conspiracies, but I imagine it has to be exhausting. You rarely see Sophronia be ‘off’; even when she’s relaxing down with the sooties, teaching Soap to read, she’s usually being visited by Vieve and making plans, and I get the impression that their complicated potential romantic future aside, Sophronia sees Soap as something of an asset. On the one hand, she is a marvelous person in that she sees all of the positive qualities of her friends. On the other hand, she notices these things because she is filing away their potential usefulness.
So there you go! Fun heroine, funny words, some spy stuff, some robo-dogs, some fluffy dresses, mild romance, and lots of lady friendship. A very helpful bookstore employee informed me that Carriger’s adult series (Parasol Protectorate) looks at the adult lives of a few of these characters, so perhaps I’ll report back on that, but in the meantime, I’ll sit here and enjoy all the ways you can use fancy tea desserts to pass codes.