Manners & Mutiny, the final installment in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series goes out with a bang. Literally. In the form of an exploding wicker chicken. Yes. An exploding wicker chicken.
More on the chicken later, but first, some plot. The Finishing School series is a prequel to Carriger’s sublime Parasol Protectorate books. The books follow Sophronia Temminnick a, a student at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School for Young Ladies of Quality. In this steampunk version of Victorian England, werewolves and vampires hold powerful positions in English high society and have equally powerful enemies in the form of the aristocratic, human Picklemen (yep, you read that right. Their leader is the Grand Gherkin. It’s all so fabulously silly). In a giant dirigible floating over Dartmoor, Geraldine’s girls are trained to navigate this dangerous world using the fine arts of etiquette and espionage.
Manners & Mutiny brings the culmination of the Pickleman slightly convoluted plot to use Mademoiselle Geraldine’s to control all of England’s mechanicals (in this world, the servant class is primarily made up of robots), topple the government, and install themselves in power. As always with this series, things get utterly ridiculous and delightfully silly (see: exploding wicker chicken, words which made me laugh whenever they passed the audiobook narrator’s lips) as Sophronia and her friends try to stop the Pickleman plot, and it’s smashing good fun. The stakes are higher than in the earlier books, and Sophronia is forced to grow up and make some serious choices her life and her future. Carriger does a good job of finishing up the series – tying up plot lines, weaving in some exciting new bits of information, and giving satisfying resolution for the characters we’ve grown to love. It’s one of those “sad to say goodbye but happy with where things are going for all my book friends” endings.
There are a lot of things to love about this series. Sophronia is a great character – strong, smart, cunning, loyal. There are some wonderfully fun secondary characters – Sophronia’s school friends Dimity, Agatha, and Sidheag, the dandy vampire Lord Akeldama (who is, for my money, the single best vampire character I have ever come across), the Geraldine’s teachers, and the “sooties” who keep the school afloat, including Sophronia’s love interest, Soap. The world building is superb – Carriger’s steampunk London is a delicious, concoction made up of equal parts technology, fashion, the supernatural, manners, and silliness that I am always happy to visit. It’s all great stuff.
Reading this book it hit me that my favorite thing about these books is what Carriger is doing with femininity, gender, and power. Her version of Victorian England is pretty faithful to the real thing when it comes to the possibilities open to women: wife, mother, governess, servant, whore. Sophronia and her friends are at a school that, to the outside world, is training them to the role of wife and mother. What goes on inside Mademoiselle Geraldine’s is another matter. These girls are being trained to a) have a job!, an important, kick-ass career that is theirs and theirs alone; b) be a total badass, they can fight, manipulate, spy, kill – don’t mess with a Geraldine’s girl; and c) put the trappings of femininity to good use.
This last point is perhaps my favorite thing about the book. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, the women’s domains of beauty, fashion, and feminine “accomplishments” like playing the harp or needlepoint aren’t dismissed as too trivial, shallow, girly, or weak for badass super spies. Instead, they’re weaponized. Sophronia and her friends don’t need to reject feminine trappings and be more like “the boys” to be powerful. Their power comes from a whole range of skills and traits all along the gender spectrum: Sophronia’s skill at both flirting and fighting; Dimity’s facility at manipulating with fashion; Agatha’s meekness; Vieve’s inventions; Sidheag’s fierceness.
To finish, a quote that tickles me to no end:“A girl wearing a wicker chicken and playing the harp bopped me with a book about buns and then stuffed me under a piano.”