Fourteen year old Sophronia Temminnick is driving her mother to distraction. She is nothing like her sisters or other girls her age. Rather than interested in fashion, good manners and elegance she has a fascination with climbing trees and discovering how things work by dismantling them. After an unfortunate incident with a dumbwaiter Mrs. Temminnick is only too happy when her wayward daughter is invited to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School for Young Ladies of Quality.
Sophronia dreads the idea of going to a school where she will have to dedicate her time to being truly feminine but since she isn’t given a choice she travels to the school with one of the teacher’s and another new student. What could have been a boring journey filled with apprehension turns into something far more interesting when their coach is attacked by flyway-men and it is up to Sophronia to save the day. And the school turns out to be not quite what she expected either. Not only is the school’s location rather fluid, the lessons are unexpected as well. Yes, Sophronia will have to learn how to curtsy properly, something which proves quite hard since:
“It is one thing to learn how to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time.”
Not to mention the fact that she has both a werewolf and a vampire among her teachers. And then there is the small matter of the missing prototype and the flyway-men so determined to acquire it that the whole school is being threatened.
Welcome to finishing school, where finishing comes in lots of different ways.
This book is so much fun. Sophronia is a wonderful main character; she’s feisty, clever, curious and not easily scared. Following her exploits is an exhilarating experience. There isn’t a dull paragraph in this book and almost every single page will contain at least one moment that will have the reader smile if not laugh out loud. But while the reader is taken from one exciting moment to the next and it seems like we’re on an uninterrupted adventure there is also room for character development and world building.
This book is set in a steam-punk version of Victorian England and this makes for a wonderful combination. I loved all the technical devices introduced in this story, especially Bumbersnoot, the little mechanical dog Sophronia secretly adopts. And I adore the idea of training girls to be assassins or spies while also teaching them how to be proper ladies. Everything a lady uses, wears or carries with her turns out to not only be a fashion accessory but also a potential weapon. Who knew there were so many uses for the simple fan or handkerchief?
It is hard to read this book and not draw parallels with the Harry Potter stories. The boarding school setting, the secret nature of the school and its location, the student who is an instant enemy, the unlikely friends, they are all clearly recognisable and I could probably come up with more examples. But, this story is unique enough to stand on its own two feet. Gail Carriger has created her own universe with its own quirks and charms. And while there are a lot of mysterious devices as well as supernatural creatures in this book there is no magic and that fact in itself sets the book apart from Rowling’s books.
If I have one complaint about this book it is that it wasn’t any longer. I don’t think this story would have suffered if there had been more descriptions and background information. I would have loved to read a bit more about the lessons and all the weird and wonderful skills the girls are taught. I would have liked to see all the other characters fleshed out a little bit more. As it was, all of that took a backseat to the thrill of the adventure. Mind you, this is the first book in a series, so I’m hopeful that in books to come I will find the detail I’m craving at the moment.
This book is a magical, thrill a minute sort of read that will keep the reader turning the pages with a huge grin on their face; pure enjoyment between two covers.