Today I read Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, Book the First of the Finishing School series. This series is set in the same universe as the Parasol Protectorate series which I have previously reviewed.
Sophronia Angelina Temminnick is the absolute despair of her mother. She can’t curtsey, embroider, or properly eavesdrop on a private conversation without revealing her presence and absolutely destroying the trifle. Clearly the only possible solution is to send her to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.
What Sophronia soon learns at school, however, is that she is not to learn how to finish her education in the genteel arts so mush as she is to learn how to finish others. Etiquette, embroidery, dressing, dancing, and flirting are only half of the curriculum–the other half is occupied with activities such as espionage, murder, mayhem, and all other sorts of useful things for a young lady of quality to know. After all, one never knows when one may be called upon to poison an enemy of the state, and think of the embarrassment if one’s victim died during the soup course instead of the desert! With her new friend Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott and her Pillover of a little brother, Sophronia will learn to deal with being accosted by flywaymen, how to properly ride side-saddle on a werewolf wearing a top hat, and how to sneak around the school whilst floating a hundred feet above the earth. And perhaps she’ll even save the day and rescue the mysterious prototype–as long as she can do it in the correct dress, of course. One must maintain appearances, after all.
I originally read Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series last year because steampunk has been in vogue among the nerdy circles for the last few years, and I kept seeing the books around, and my friend Sheena had spoken highly of them (she’s fairly reliable as long as you’re not discussing Stargate, because she is very very very very very wrong about Jack and Sam. Just plain wrong. The end.). I loved the books, and I was pleased when I found out that Carriger was writing a new prequel series set in the same universe. We meet the young Sidheag Maccon and Professor Beatrice Lefoux and little Vieve before Alexia comes across them many years hence. Sophronia has a spirit similar to Alexia while being her own character, one younger and easier to mold into the semblance of a lady without being devoid of a taste for adventure. One wonders if Alexia might have had a slightly easier time creating her Parasol Protectorate had she had the benefit of an education at a place like Mademoiselle Geraldine’s.
Across from Sophronia’s mother, sipping tea, sat an elegant lady wearing a sour expression and a large hat. She looked like exactly the kind of woman one would expect to be a vampire drone.
“Here is Miss Sophronia, madam,” said Frowbritcher from the doorway, not bothering to transfer tracks. He glided off, probably to marshal forces to clean the parlor.
“Sophronia! What did you do to poor Mrs. Barnaclegoose? She left here in a dreadful huff and—oh, simply look at you! Mademoiselle, please excuse my daughter’s appearance. I’d tell you it was an aberration, but, sadly, it’s all too common. Such a troublesome child.”
The stranger gave Sophronia a prim look that made her feel about six years old. She was painfully conscious of her custardy state. No one would ever describe Sophronia as elegant, whereas this woman was every inch a lady. Sophronia had never before considered how powerful that could be. The strange woman was also offensively beautiful, with pale skin and dark hair streaked with gray. It was impossible to discern her age, for, despite the gray, her face was young. She was perfectly dressed in a sort of spiky lace traveling gown with a massive skirt and velvet trim that was much more elegant than anything Sophronia had ever seen in her life. Her mother was more a follower of trends than a purveyor of fine taste. This woman was truly stylish.
Despite her beauty, she looks, thought Sophronia, a little like a crow.She stared down at her feet and tried to come up with an excuse for her behavior, other than spying on people. “Well, I simply wanted to see how it worked, and then there was this—”
Her mother interrupted. “How it worked? What kind of question is that for a young lady to ask? How often have I warned you against fraternizing with technology?”
Sophronia wondered if that was a rhetorical question and began counting up the number of times just in case it wasn’t. Her mother turned back to their guest.
“Do you see what I mean, mademoiselle? She’s a cracking great bother.”
“What? Mumsy!” Sophronia was offended. Never before had her mother used such language in polite company.
“Do you see, Mademoiselle Geraldine? Do you see what I must endure? And on a daily basis. A bother. Has been from the beginning. And the other girls were such little blessings. Well, I suppose we were due. I tell you this in complete confidence—I’m at my wit’s end with this one. I really am. When she isn’t reading, she’s taking something apart or flirting with the footman or climbing things—trees, furniture, even other people.”
“That was years ago!” objected Sophronia. Will she never let that go? I was eight!
“Hush, child.” Mrs. Temminnick didn’t even look in her daughter’s direction. “Have you ever heard of the like with a girl? Now, I know she’s a little brazen for finishing school, but I was hoping you might make an exception, just this once.”
Finishing school? Then I’m not being sent to the vampires? Relief flooded through Sophronia, instantly followed by a new horror. Finishing school! There would be lessons. On how to curtsy. On how to dress. On how to eat with one’s finger in the air. Sophronia shuddered. Perhaps a vampire hive was a better option.
Mrs. Temminnick pressed on. “We are certainly willing to provide compensation for your considering Sophronia. Mrs. Barnaclegoose told me, in confidence, that you are masterly with troublesome cases. You have an excellent record. Why, only last week one of your girls married a viscount.”
Sophronia was rattled. “Really, Mumsy!” Marriage? Already?
As yet, the crow had said nothing. This was a common occurrence around Sophronia’s mother. The stranger merely sipped her tea, the bulk of her attention on Sophronia. Her eyes were hard, assessing, and her movements very precise and sharp.
Mrs. Temminnick continued. “And, of course, there is dear Petunia’s coming-out ball to consider. We were hoping Sophronia might be presentable for the event. This December? Well, as presentable as possible, given her… defects.”
Sophronia winced. She was well aware she hadn’t her sisters’ looks. For some reason the Fates had seen fit to design her rather more in her father’s image than her mother’s. But there was no need to discuss such a thing openly with a stranger!
“That could be arranged.” When the woman finally spoke, it was with such a strong French accent that her words were difficult to understand. “Miss Temminnick, why is there india rubber wrapped around your boots?”
Sophronia looked down. “Mumsy was complaining I kept scuffing them.”
“Interesting solution. Does it work?”
“Haven’t had a chance to test them properly.” She paused. “Yet.”
The stranger looked neither shocked nor impressed by this statement.
Frowbritcher reappeared. He made a motion with one clawlike mechanical arm, beckoning. Sophronia’s mother stood and went to confer with the butler. Frowbritcher had a sinister habit of turning up with secrets. It was highly disconcerting in a mechanical.
After a whispered interchange, Mrs. Temminnick went red about the face and then whirled back around.
Oh, dear, thought Sophronia, what have I done now?
“Please excuse me for a moment. There appears to be some difficulty with our new dumbwaiter.” She gave her daughter a pointed look. “Hold your tongue and behave, young lady!”
Mrs. Temminnick left the room, closing the door firmly behind her.
“Where did you get the rubber?” The crow dismissed Sophronia’s mother with comparative ease, still intrigued by the shoe modification. India rubber was expensive and difficult to come by, particularly in any shape more complex than a ball.
Sophronia nodded in a significant way.
“You destroyed a dumbwaiter for it?”
“I’m not saying I did. I’m not saying I didn’t, either.” Sophronia was cautious. After all, this woman wants to steal me away to finishing school. I’ll be there for years and then foisted off on some viscount with two thousand a year and a retreating hairline. Sophronia rethought her approach; perhaps a little less circumspection and some judiciously applied sabotage was called for.
“Mumsy wasn’t lying, you understand, about my conduct? The climbing and such. Although it has been a while since I tried to climb up a person. And the footman and I weren’t flirting. He thinks Petunia is the pip, not me.”
“What about the taking apart?”
Sophronia nodded, as it was a better excuse for destroying the dumbwaiter than spying. “I’m fond of machines. Intriguing things, machines, don’t you find?”
The woman cocked her head to one side. “I generally prefer to make use of them, not dissect them. Why do you do it? To upset your mother?”
Sophronia considered this. She was relatively fond of her mother, as one is apt to be, but she supposed some part of her might be on the attack. “Possibly.”
A flash of a smile appeared on the woman’s face. It made her look very young. It vanished quickly. “How are you as a thespian? Any good?”
“Theatricals?” What kind of finishing school teacher asks that? Sophronia was put out. “I may have smudges on my face, but I’m still a lady!”
The woman looked at Sophronia’s exposed petticoat. “That remains to be seen.” She turned away, as though not interested anymore, and helped herself to a slice of cake. “Are you strong?”
Down the hall, something exploded with a bang. Sophronia thought she heard her mother shriek. Both she and the visitor ignored the disruption.
“Strong?” Sophronia edged toward the tea trolley, eyeing the sponge.
“From all the climbing.” A pause. “And the machine lifting, I suppose.”
Sophronia blinked. “I’m not weak.”
“You’re certainly good at prevarication.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“That depends on whom you’re asking.”
Sophronia helped herself to two pieces of cake, just as though she had been invited to do so. The visitor forbore to remark upon it. Sophronia turned away briefly, in the guise of finding a spoon, to tuck one piece in her apron pocket. Mumsy wouldn’t allow her any sweets for the next week once she found out about the dumbwaiter.
The woman might have seen the theft, but she didn’t acknowledge it.
“You run this finishing school, then?”
“Do you run this finishing school, Mademoiselle Geraldine?” corrected the crow.
“Do you run this finishing school, Mademoiselle Geraldine?” parroted Sophronia dutifully, even though they had not been properly introduced. Odd, in a finishing school teacher. Shouldn’t she wait until Mumsy returns?
“It is called Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Have you heard of it?”
Sophronia had. “I thought only the very best families were allowed in.”
“Sometimes we make exceptions.”
“Are you the Mademoiselle Geraldine? You don’t seem old enough.”
“Why, thank you, Miss Temminnick, but you should not make such an observation to your betters.”
“Sorry, Mademoiselle Geraldine.”
“Oh, yes, sorry, Mademoiselle Geraldine.”
“Very good. Do you notice anything else odd about me?”
Sophronia said the first thing that came to mind. “The gray in your hair. It’s amiss.”
“You are an observant young lady, aren’t you?” Then, in a sudden movement, Mademoiselle Geraldine reached and pulled out the small throw pillow from behind her back. She tossed it at Sophronia.
Sophronia, who had never before had a lady throw a pillow at her, was flabbergasted, but caught it.
“Adequate reflexes,” said Mademoiselle Geraldine, wiggling her fingers for the return of the pillow.
Bemused, Sophronia handed it back to her. “Why—”
A black-gloved hand was raised against any further questions.