This book takes place in the same universe as the Parasol Protectorate series, but 22 years ahead of Soulless. The technology is notably better than what we're used to in this series... Having recently attended a signing/Q&A with the author (which was a very good time!), I can tell you that she said there's a reason for the technology being more advanced...and the main character in this series most likely has something to do with that.* Given how much time is spent manipulating the mechanicals to not sense you when you're sneaking about, I can already imagine.
Anyhoo: Sophronia Temminick is 14 years old and always getting into trouble. She likes climbing and investigating and trying new things out and getting messy--and of course, that doesn't go over well in a proper British family. Much to her surprise, she finds out that she's being sent off to boarding school--Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Only, the Mademoiselle Geraldine that came to pick her up is....fishy. She interacts with Sophronia in odd ways, she lies, she's clearly younger than she's pretending to be--heck, she's not actually Geraldine and makes some pungent comments about the woman.
Their escort has also picked up two other students--Dimity and Pillover Plumleigh-Teignmott. (The latter is a boy, who's about to attend Bunson and Lacroix's Boys' Polytechnique--for EVIL GENIUSES.) You have to wonder when Dimity tells you that her father is "a founding member of the Death Weasel Confederacy, and Mummy is a kitchen chemist with questionable intent, but poor Pillover can't even bring himself to murder ants with his Depraved Lens of Crispy Magnification." What the heck kind of school is this? And things get even weirder when their carriage is attacked by "flywaymen" (yup, that's flying highwaymen) who are after the mademoiselle for some kind of prototype. They don't get it...but she seems to have hidden it somewhere. Anyway, Sophronia takes charge of the situation and gets them out of it, while the mademoiselle basically cries and faints and whinges about being useless. Is this some kind of rigged test for new students? At the very least, Sophronia thinks it's fishy.
As you guessed from the title, this is a school for ladies who learn to finish...anything and anyone that's necessary. They're schooled in weapons, poisons, eyelash batting, fainting to their best investigative advantage, deportment, seduction...it's a busy place. Oh yeah, and the school is located on a GIANT flying dirigible. And the actual Mademoiselle Geraldine is the only school employee who's not in on the spy game--classes with her involve sneaking around without her noticing anything. Hah. Sophronia finds out that she's a "covert recruit," i.e. her parents have no idea what kind of school their little girl has been recruited into. The other debuts are from, well...good, ah... well, let's just say that Dimity's family sounds fairly typical for this bunch? Except for one Sidheag Maccon, who you may remember from Changeless. (Also in attendance in this story are Beatrice and Genevieve Lefoux, the latter as a 9-year-old budding inventor who likes ladies' clothes, but refuses to wear 'em.) As a 13-year-old, she's been raised by wolves and really isn't all that ladylike for a finishing school either. Sophronia makes friends with her, as well as the "sooties" that work on the dirigible. She also ends up with a tiny mechanical dachshund, which she names Bumbersnoot.
The fake mademoiselle turns out to be Monique, a senior girl who's just screwed up big time on this final exam mission--and gets demoted into having to rejoin the debut class and start all over again. Oh, GREAT. She also lies her ass off about the flywaymen attack. Naturally, she's thoroughly unpleasant to everyone--and Sophronia and Dimity are well aware that the girl is up to something crooked. But why is she being allowed to somehow not have the prototype on her person? The rumor mill says she's got some professor on her side, but who? Meanwhile, the dirigible is getting attacked by flywaymen (and worse, the Picklemen--wait, what?) wanting that thing....While the school can drum up the prototype to the prototype, they spend most of the season flying in the grey and not landing. By the time they come out of it, it's time for winter break, and Sophronia's figured out what's going on...
This is a fun book. Obviously, the style and attitude in this is both ludicrous and entertaining, what with the names and all. The author keeps up the same sense of amusement that I enjoyed in the previous series, though I think this one is even more amusing in its way, what with the secret societies of evil and the things that the debuts study. I enjoyed Sophronia as a character-- her curiosity and ability to synthesize information that she gathers is top-notch. I also really enjoyed Dimity--she may be unabashedly girly and supposedly not into fighting, but she's got her own skills. And I also enjoyed seeing a teenage Sidheag, who's regarded as mannish and sulky, but eventually lets her guard down and makes some friends. Plus, robot doggie that eats coal! What's not to love about that?
If there's anything that's not super awesome about this book, it's that I still feel a bit lost as to what the overall game of the school is. Who do they work for? What are they training these girls for? Is this an evil spy agency or a good one? (Most likely the latter--when your professor encourages you to take an interest in killing....) While god knows I love the idea of girls' spy schools, I'm not sure what these girls are in training for and why this place exists so much. It's a little vague, which I found odd. The mystery of the book itself, while it's explained well, still made me feel like I may be missing a detail or two as well. I'm going to assume we'll find out more about that in the next book, though.
I did also find myself wondering how this series ties into the world we've previously known, and trying to keep straight the ages of the folks I know already compared to the ones here. Is it possible that Sophronia could turn up in the eventual third series in this world, or would she be way too old? I'll be curious to eventually find out.
* I'm rereading Timeless right now--check page 257, the Clandestine Scientific Information Act of 1855. Foreshadowing!!!