When I set out to write a Young Adult fantasy novel, one of my initial creative intentions was to explore the relationships between young women. The novels I love include complex and admirable girls, but they always seem to be operating in an isolated oestrogen bubble. Hermione Grainger, Dorothy Gale, Katniss Everdene, Lyra Belacqua, Princess Eilonwy: great female characters surrounded at all times by boys and men.
We see some of Lucy Pevensie interacting with sister Susan, though their relationship comes across as frosty at best. Terry Pratchett gives Tiffany Aching a posse of girlfriends and older female mentors in his brilliant series. This is a rare exception. Few Young Adult genre novels present readers with a group of girls.
Enter Gail Carriger’s brand new series: The Finishing School. Its first instalment, Etiquette and Espionage, is a little dream of a book. Vampires, Werewolves, Mechanicals, Evil Geniuses, trainee Femme Fatales are all invited to this Steampunk Tea Party. And there are loads of girls! Sweet girls, clever girls, butch girls, bitchy girls, shy girls, girly girls—all trying to navigate the same treacherous waters of adolescence without capsizing or spoiling their rather marvellous frocks.
The story begins with the experimental antics of Sophronia, a wild and far too clever child whose sister described her as “unfit for public consumption.” Her own mother thinks she is a “terrible bother”. At first Sophronia fears Mumsie intends to send her off to the Vampires for a “proper education”. But Sophronia doesn’t want to go to the Vampires. “They’ll suck my blood and make me wear nothing but the latest fashions!” Instead our little heroine is shipped off (literally) to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Of course there is far more to this finishing school than tutorials in Parasol Management and Eyelash Fluttering.
The concept for this series gives Carriger ample opportunity to introduce a variety of girls as well as indulge her love of Victorian fashion. Fans of her Parasol Protectorate books will take pleasure in meeting younger versions of some of her more eccentric characters. I actually think I enjoyed this new series even more than her previous one, possibly because I am drawn to characters who are not quite certain how they fit into the world around them. Sophronia and her cronies struggle in different ways to belong, to get along and to learn what “finishing” truly means.
Gail Carriger is the high tea of genre writers. Just when you think her Flywaymen finger sandwiches are the nicest thing ever she brings out Sootie scones and Picklemen jam pots then makes you want to hold your pinky high in time for the Debut Ball sponge cake finale. Keep the orange pekoe going whilst you revel in this festival of genre girls.