Young adult fiction is a potentially powerful thing. At its best it explores the emergence of adult emotions and a sense of self. It shows characters finding purpose in a world that seemed beyond their control. It’s aimed at an age group who are forming their reading habits for life, and could be forever turned into bibliophiles by the right book.
This doesn’t mean that a YA book needs to be as emotionally draining as The Hunger Games. There’s also a place for a something jollier and more light-hearted, something that lures you round to a serious point through a fun adventure story.
In short, there’s most definitely a place for Curtsies & Conspiracies.
A splendid sequel
C&C is the sequel to Etiquette & Espionage, about which I enthused in a previous post. These are the stories of Sophronia, a young woman at a unique steampunk finishing school, where she is learning to be a spy. In the background are the machinations of strange factions within Victorian English society, including vampires, werewolves and the mechanically-minded Picklemen. As befits a would-be spy, Sophronia’s life is increasingly tangled in this world of supernatural politics.
All the positive things I said about E&E hold true for C&C. Gail Carriger has a wonderful way of evoking the Victorian upper crust atmosphere. You can hear the collective voice of that era in the way that the characters talk, the things that concern them, the details they notice in the world around them. Class structure matters. Etiquette matters. Dress and appearance matter. These aren’t shallow characters, but they are working within a mental framework that can feel absurdly narrow to a modern reader.
Yet I bought into it. I accepted it on its own terms. I revelled in it, and enjoyed playing along to its own internal logic, where the way a woman faints in can give away her intent, and where a gentleman may be judged by the band around his hat.
Action and reaction
Sophronia continues to be a splendid central character, the sort of skilled and purposefully disobedient role model I like to see. But in this book we start to see that her actions also have consequences, not all of them good.
This is an area that’s tricky in a spy story, where the central skills of the protagonists are lies and deception. Think for a minute about James Bond. Sure, the most recent films have touched on the dark side of the spy game, but on the whole the franchise has skimmed over the fact that he’s doing bad things that could have terrible consequences. If you actually stop and think about Bond’s lifestyle you don’t get the cheesy glamour of Roger Moore, or even the grim sexiness of Daniel Craig – you get the sleazy destructiveness of Archer.
I didn’t really expect the Finishing School books to delve far into the consequences of a career in theft and character assassination, or of the restrictive society in which Sophronia lives. Yet this book is strong on consequences. It lets them creep up on you through the first two thirds, then burst out as the central theme of the final section. I don’t want to give any more away, but I thought that Carriger did a great job of making the world feel more real through exploring this theme, without forever losing the whimsical joy that makes the setting so appealing.
Growing up with your books
It’s become a common feature of YA series for events to grow darker as the character and the readers grow up. Harry Potter’s famous for it, but it’s a theme that stretches back at least as far as C S Lewis’s Narnia stories, where the children grew too old to return to a magical world.
It’s a pattern that’s good for writers, as they keep the attention of their growing readers. But it’s also a good thing for readers, showing them that life changes, that people change, and that’s not a bad thing, just as they themselves are facing enormous change. It can be supportive and guiding. It shows the power of books.
Gail Carriger is doing that here, and it makes these books all the more admirable. The fact that she does it through a plot that feels more immediate and compelling than the previous book only adds to the pleasure.
So yes, I enjoyed this book too, more even than its predecessor. It’s fun and whimsical, but with just enough of a serious side to show growth in the series, its plots and its characters. I look forward to reading more of Carriger’s splendid books.