Category: Steampunk

Manners and Mutiny (Finishing School #4)

Cover image for Manners and Mutiny by Gail Carriger by Gail Carriger

ISBN 978-0-316-19028-2

“Thus the young ladies, outfitted in each other’s finest—and each other’s personalities—descended upon Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique for a winter ball a few weeks later. There existed no little animosity between the two schools. They disagreed upon the subjects of politics, supernatural acceptance, techniques of instruction, and teatime provisions. But they were linked by necessity.”

Sophronia Temminnick has her plate full as she enters her final year at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School where, in addition to manners and charms, she has also been receiving a first-class education in espionage. In a bargain to save Soap’s life, she bartered her post-graduation contract to the Dewan, but it seems that he isn’t content to wait for her to finish school. Meanwhile, the Pickleman plot involving the new crystalline frequencer valves could come to fruition at any time, and Sophronia must be ready, since neither her teachers nor anyone else is prepared to believe her about what she thinks they have planned. And of course, she has unfinished business with Soap, the Sootie turned werewolf, and Lord Felix Mersey, evil genius and son of a Pickleman.

Truthfully, this is as much a review of the Finishing School series as Manners and Mutiny, the fourth and final volume thereof. I listened to the first three volumes as audiobooks, narrated by the excellent Moira Quirk, who brings the accents, characters, and lively dialogue to life. Too impatient to wait for my library to get in the audiobook, I snatched up a paper copy Manners and Mutiny as soon as it was available. However, Quirk’s narration is so good I plan on listening to the entire thing again once I top the holds queue for the audiobook. (Update: Got the audio! These books are good, but the audiobooks are absolute treasures!)

Gail Carriger’s delightful steampunk world blends Victorian manners, mechanical contrivances, and werewolves and vampires for a charming precursor to her popular Parasol Protectorate series (which I admittedly have not read). Spirited dialogue and witty banter adorn the comedy-of-manners aspect of the story, while the spy school setting adds action and intrigue to the mix. For those who have read the Parasol Protectorate, Carriger shows how the world for that series came to be, and adds a nice tie-in between some characters in the final pages.

Sophronia is gutsy and perceptive, and her character really grew on me as the series progressed and she channelled her talent for mischief into espionage. Her friends Dimity, Agatha, and Sidheag round out the cast, each with their own reasons for attending Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. Unfortunately, Sidheag’s removal to Scotland along with Captain Niall means that neither character features in this final installment. However, we do get to see some significant development in Agatha’s character. And of course, Carriger must finally answer the question of whether Sophronia will choose Soap, the black werewolf, or Felix Mersey, son of one of the highest ranked Picklemen in the country. To choose Soap would mean social exile, but as long as Felix holds to his father’s politics, choosing him would mean betraying her own values. And while Felix was always a powerful aristocrat, now that Soap is a werewolf, the power dynamic between them has shifted significantly, leaving Sophronia afraid she had lost control of the entire situation.

The Finishing School series is a fun frolic full of delightful characters, spirited hijinks, and romantic tension. The boys are dashing, the girls are boisterous, and the teachers struggle to contain their plucky protégés.  Manners and Mutiny forms a fitting conclusion to this eminently enjoyable series.

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The Clockwork Crown (Clockwork Dagger #2)

clockwork-crownby Beth Cato

ISBN 978-0-06-231398-0

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this book as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program. This title will be published on June 9, 2015.

“The Lady’s Tree moored its roots to the very spirit of the earth. Through the Tree, Octavia could heal with prowess beyond any other known medician. Lately, however, the Lady’s magic had changed. Octavia had changed. Her power through the Lady had increased, and she wasn’t sure if it was truly for the better.”

Having escaped numerous assassination and kidnapping attempts from Caskentians and Wasters alike in The Clockwork Dagger, Octavia Leander and Alonzo Garrett travel south to his homeland of Tamarania, where they hope the great libraries of the Southern nations will cast light on the mystery of the origins of the Lady and her Tree, and Octavia’s growing powers as a medician. As they attempt to parse history from mythology, Octavia begins to suspect that her unusually strong powers come with a price she was never told about. With Clockwork Daggers and agents of the Waste still in hot pursuit, they turn their eyes back to the Waste, where the Lady’s Tree is hidden, seeking answers from the source itself, even as Octavia is stricken by a creeping rash that no prayer to the Lady can heal.

Since Octavia’s powers are drawn from the Lady, it is perhaps not surprising that there are many deus ex machina solutions in both The Clockwork Dagger and The Clockwork Crown. However, in this volume, the device is less bothersome, because magic is the cause of at least as many problems as it solves. Octavia’s mysterious ailment seems to be magical in nature, and to spread when she uses her powers. As her powers continue to grow beyond anything recorded in the history of medicians, the life songs of the people around her become so overwhelming she fears losing her mind. And as she delves into the history of the Waste, she learns that the curse the Dallowmen claim Caskentia placed on their land may be real after all. Visiting Mercia for the first time, she also comes to suspect that the pollution and illness that thrives in Caskentia’s capital may not be natural either. For every problem a prayer to the Lady solves, two more pop up to takes its place.

The direct intercession of the Lady is interesting as more than a deus ex machina, however. Her increasing communications with Octavia turn the Lady into a character in her own right, presenting Cato with the interesting problem of developing a goddess as an interesting player in the story. The Lady becomes more than just the distant and even theoretical source of Octavia’s power, and instead is presented as a being with an agenda and interests of her own. This development is complicated by the fact that Octavia is beginning to doubt that her own agenda is compatible with that of the Lady she has prayed to all her life, provoking a crisis of faith. These changes bring significant depth and dimension to The Clockwork Crown.

There are many plot arcs at play in this volume, and as a duology rather than the more usual trilogy, Cato has a lot of ground to cover, and events to tie up. She manages to tag all the bases, but doing so involves a lot of running around; in the course of the book Octavia travels from Caskentia to Tamaranian to Mercia to the Waste, all in a relatively short period of time. Octavia and Alonzo are frequently separated, and he doesn’t get as much page-time in the sequel, but their understated romance still has some significant development. While Clockwork Dagger favourite Mrs. Stout makes a cursory appearance, she unfortunately has a much less significant role to play in the events of the sequel. These reductions make way for a surprising new companion, much heard of but never seen in The Clockwork Dagger, who joins Octavia in Mercia and accompanies her to the Waste.

The Clockwork Dagger Duology offers an unusual blend of steampunk backdrop and faith-based magic system that gives the series a more fantastic feel. The characters develop along satisfying arcs and form nuanced relationships.  It is almost a shame that the series is over just as Cato seems to have really found her stride.

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The Clockwork Dagger

Cover image for The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Catoby Beth Cato

ISBN 978-0-06-231384-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher through the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.

Pray, by the Lady let me mend thy ills.”

Octavia Leander is a recent graduate of Miss Percival’s academy for medicians. Under Miss Percival’s tutelage, Octavia has gone from an orphan with no future to being one of the most skilled healers in all of Caskentia. At only twenty-two, she is already a veteran of the warfront, where she worked to heal soldiers injured fighting for Caskentia in the ongoing conflict with the Wasters from beyond the mountains. With an armistice recently declared between Caskentia and the Waste, Octavia can finally leave the army behind, and set up a practice in a peaceful village far from the ravages of war, and the pollution of the big city. But as she journeys by airship towards the village of Delford, Octavia finds herself targeted in a series of mysterious and conflicting events, with foes who cannot seem to decide if they want to kidnap her or kill her. With the help of ship’s steward Alonzo Garrett, and her cabin mate, Mrs. Stout, Octavia hopes solve the mystery of her pursuers, and make it to Delford alive.

Beth Cato’s new steampunk adventure, the first in a duology, features a young woman setting out into the world on her own for the first time. Although she has served at the front, Octavia can still be somewhat naïve, and very altruistic. Her roommate, the older and wiser Mrs. Stout tries to protect her, but Octavia is headstrong and independent, and unwilling to be reined in. Although she is powerful medician, the fact that this is magical gift rather than a learned skill is brought home by how little Octavia really seems to understand the scope of her powers. Although she feels hurt by the rejection of the other Percival girls, who resent her difference, she has very little awareness of how others outside that insulated world will perceive her. Her obliviousness can be somewhat frustrating, but is balanced out by Alonzo, and Mrs. Stout, who are a little more experienced.

It takes a while to settle into Cato’s steampunk world and adjust to language that is sometimes trying just a little bit too hard to be old-timey and instead simply seems awkward. For example, it can be jarring to encounter a contraction in an otherwise formal sentence alongside archaic word choices. On the other hand, Cato’s old-fashioned curse words and exclamations are rather delightful. Once you are ensconced, Cato has created an intriguing and unusual world that combines science, religion, and magic in interesting ways that are not entirely explained. While Octavia believes fervently in the Lady, and views herself as simply a conduit for the Lady’s healing powers, others regard the Lady as a dying religion, and think that medicians are healing through some science that even they do not fully understand. Learning the truth about her powers seems likely to form a significant part of Octavia’s journey in the second installment.

The first part of the The Clockwork Dagger is a little bit slow, spending a lot of time on world building and character development. There are a few false starts, as Octavia struggles to figure out what is going on aboard the airship, and plenty of red herrings. However, the action picks up considerably in the later part of the book until it is difficult to put the story down. Although there is a lot of cool technology, and some interesting creatures, Octavia solves most of her problems with her magical abilities, which some readers may find tiresome after a while. The action is brought to a conclusion by a literal deus ex machina, which fits to a certain extent given that Octavia is struggling to understand the full extent of her powers as a medician, which derive from the Lady. The ending is rather tidy, but there is still plenty to explore in The Clockwork Crown, due out in September 2015.

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Of Metal and Wishes

Cover image for Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fineby Sarah Fine

ISBN 9781481405379

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“There’s nothing wrong with being scared. It only means something important is at stake.”

After the death of her mother, sixteen year old Wen must move to Gochan One, the huge factory slaughterhouse where her father is the resident doctor. The factory complex is cold and unwelcoming, and apparently haunted by the Ghost, a worker who met his end on the killing floor, and now grants wishes to the factory workers who leave offerings at his altar. In order to meet the demand for meat for the Itanyai’s feasting season, the factory bosses have hired a band of Noor, wild, brutal men from a territory occupied by the Itanyai for almost a thousand years. When one of the Noor humiliates Wen, she makes a wish to the Ghost she does not believe in, with unexpected consequences. Haunted by the results of her wish, Wen tries to protect the Noor from the brutal conditions of the factory, only to find herself alienated from her own people, and drawn to Melik, leader of the Noor.

In this retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, Wen finds herself caught between the Ghost of Gochan One, and Melik, the leader of the Noor. The addition of the class conflict gives Melik greater depth of character than Raoul, the slightly lacklustre love interest from The Phantom of the Opera. Wen is pulled in two directions by her Itanyai heritage, and her unexpected sympathy for the exploited Noor. She is caught in a complex relationship with her father, who tries to save everyone, but cannot protect himself, or his daughter, from the brutal realities of factory life. Sarah Fine layers interracial tension and class politics over a familiar story, and gives it a steampunk twist with her eerie factory setting. Wen also has to struggle with the problematic gender roles of her culture, which emphasizes a woman’s purity, and yet is quick to degrade it. With the exception of Wen’s father, few of the Itanyai characters have much depth, and are mainly characterized by their racism towards the Noor and their sexist attitudes. The atmosphere is tense, but the villains are one dimensional.

The conclusion to Of Metal and Wishes is open-ended, suggesting a sequel will follow. While the confined setting of the factory complex is well developed at the expense of Fine’s dystopian world, a sequel would have much more latitude to explore. The Itanyai culture is obviously Asian-influenced, but the history and traditions are sketched out only in the broadest strokes, Sarah Fine has penned a compelling love story, and added and an interesting twist to a beloved classic, but there is a great deal of room to take this story further.