Goodreads Version | Etiquette and Espionage
It’s taken me a two month hiatus to get back to this blog, and for that I’ve got to apologise. Exam season got to me, but now I am DONE. I’m nearly a ‘real adult’. ARGH!
It also took me solidly three years to drag my way through this book. Yeah. Not a good sign.
It’s a shame, because the concept of a ladies finishing academy upon an airship which moonlights as a spy school, where young girls learn to pirouette men to their deaths, flick poison from their fans, and pretend to swoon so they can pick people’s pockets, is extremely diverting. I did enjoy the friendships between Sophronia, Dimity, and Soap, who probably deserves a shout as the author’s attempt to ensure a cast set in Victorian upper class society wasn’t entirely white.
Due to its theme of Victorian ladies busting gender stereotypes by becoming badarse spies, this book gives of airs of being #progressive. It really isn’t. Firstly, we have Sophronia, who is soooo #NotLikeTheOtherGirls because she’s a tomboy, and isn’t into clothes. Then there’s Dimity, who is into fashion, chatting, and pink, and until the very end of the book she is portrayed as airheaded, shallow and cowardly. Oh, and there’s Monica, the #HotPopularEvil #MeanGirl, who just is mean and jealous without any explanation or further character development, because girls hate each other for no reason and that’s how the world works, right?
Finally, there’s the fact that the characters never shut up about their bosoms. I found it incredibly creepy that girls who were described as eleven and twelve were constantly thinking about their bosoms, fluttering eyelashes, and how they were going to attract eligible gentlemen. Look, I get that this is set in ‘the Victorian era’. But can we for once have a break from the sexualisation of underage girls in pop culture? Thanks.
This weird adult-ness did fit well with the rest of the novel, however, because it was packed full of children who all spoke with the eloquence and ran around with the problem solving abilities of older teenagers… despite being only eight. I felt as though Carringer couldn’t decide if her novel was aimed at preteens, or younger teenagers, so went for an awkward hodge-podge of a fourteen year old’s plot with ten year old characters. But there’s a biiiiig maturity and interest gap between those ages, trust me. This cognitive dissonance is demonstrated even more strongly by the cover, which sports a model just as adult and sexy as those on the front of any YA paranormal romance novel aimed at 16 year olds you care to name. It doesn’t work.
As for the plot, it was really hard to get invested in Sophronia’s search for the prototype, when we never find out what it is, where it is from, or why it might be important. This is a problem, because the search for the MacGuffin is what passes as a plot in this novel, which as far as I can see is really an extended prologue attempting to set up the school, and the characters for the rest of the series.
And quite frankly, why do we know that Monica isn’t actually stealing it for the greater good? We don’t, because we don’t know anything about Monica’s motivations. Why is she randomly set up the enemy? Well, because she is a 2D #MeanGirl of course, and apparently that’s all we need to know.
The entire ‘Victoriana’ genre felt incredibly awkward, for a number of reasons:
Let’s talk about the dialogue. My god, the dialogue.
If you’re going to make everyone talk in a faux-pastiche of Victorian English, you have to like, actually be consistent. You can’t mix and match modern sentence structures and American slang with the longest, fanciest sounding words you can find in the thesaurus, and hope it sounds like legit Old British Peoples. Actually, it sounds forced and at times ridiculous. The witty tone of the story is undermined by this messy writing, because it makes the humour seem more awkward than light-hearted.
The elements of ‘Victorianism’ and steampunk are also not incorporated in a way that feels organic, adding to the sense of messiness. Firstly, the mechanicals. How they work, or what they look like, is never really explained. They run on tracks but seem to always be able to pop up directly in front of where people are walking, which doesn’t make sense. Wouldn’t having wee runners in the floor also make walking around really annoying? Secondly, the flywaymen. Now don’t get me wrong, this as a concept is awesome, and I’m gutted that Carringer thought of the name before me. But they are never developed beyond nameless groups of bemasked lackeys, who are easily outwitted by a group of twelve year olds, and a helpful bank of fog. Another awkward element were the !!! These young boys think they are both badass and attractive despite being raging sexists, and go round with top hats like the fedora toting, neckbeard hellspawn of Adam and the Ants and the Artful Dodger.
If you’re going to set a story in Victorian Britain, it helps to do at least some cursory scene setting to help it feel true. You can’t just throw in the words ‘parasol’ and ‘pavlova’ and hope this will make the atmosphere magically appear. Otherwise anyone who’s read any real period novels, or done a bit of history, is going to be stuck feeling like I did — that the characters were just playacting their parts in a happy-go-lucky Dickensian panto of chimney sweeps and debutantes.
The inclusion of werewolves and vampires was also entirely unnecessary to the plot, and didn’t really mesh well with the rest of the steampunk setting. The existence of magical creatures was never given any justification, and since the werewolf and vampire characters don’t do anything relevant to the plot… why include them? Clearly, they’re going to be important later on in the series (or at least I hope so) so they are shoehorned into this prologue, almost like a teaser.
I also found it somewhat ludicrous that a vast, many decked airship able to hide utterly concealed above some moor for weeks (because all moors are permanently cloudy, right) to keep away from flywaymen, who are after the prototype. Yet despite this, the headmistress still has no idea that her school is actually a spy academy? Mate, one of your staff is a vampire!
Overall, this was a frustrating read, because the concept was seriously let down by the execution. Perhaps in the sequel the plot really gets going and the dialogue is less disjointed, but I won’t be bothering to read it.
Verdict: TWO POINT FIVE STARS