Book Review: Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger

Author’s note: I won an ARC for this book earlier this year. The book itself comes out in hardback tomorrow, November 5.

Also, if you’re here for the #WriteMotivation update, I’ll be posting mine on Thursday this week.

curtises-and-conspiracesI’ve mentioned before that I kind of adore Gail Carriger’s novels, and while I’m patiently (okay, not so patiently) awaiting the Parasol Protectorate Abroad, I’ve been happily enjoying her venture into YA with the Finishing School series.

Curtsies & Conspiracies is the sequel to Etiquette & Espionage, about Sophronia Temminick and her stay at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. For the first time in recent memory, the dirigible school is making its way to London, which is very exciting. However, the trip itself is more than what it seems, and Sophronia is just the person to get to the bottom of it.

Sophronia was, once again, a delight to read about, and in this book we really get a chance to see her character grow in unexpected ways. That was easily my favorite part of the book: not the plot itself, but seeing how Sophronia faced the challenges the new semester threw at her, and more importantly, seeing how she dealt with the consequences of her actions.

I wish I could say more about it, but so much of that is near the end of the book and tied up in the story that it would be a major spoiler to discuss, and it was so, so wonderful to discover it along the way. I loved how it brought home that all these characters operate in the varying grey areas of morality. They make decisions and make mistakes and they have very good reasons for doing what they do, even if what they do isn’t the right thing by any stretch of the imagination.

Plus, there was this bit, near the end, that sums up Sophronia so succinctly I might have hugged the book:

“Why is it always your problem to fix?”
“Because I see that there is a problem when no one else does.”

That, I believe, is why Sophronia will be my favorite character forever: because of how much she sees and how willing she is to actually get involved. She’s brilliant, and I’m so excited to see how she’ll continue to grow over the course of this series.

For fans of the Parasol Protectorate series, going to London means getting the chance to see some of the other characters we already know and love. The roles they play within this story are important, so they’re not just tossed in as Easter eggs for fans, but it still made me squeal with glee.

I enjoyed the plot, though not quite as much as the character development we see from Sophronia, and a sort-of love triangle was introduced, which I still haven’t decided how I feel about it. I did like getting to see a little more from Vieve, and I loved the friendship that’s building up between Sophronia and the other girls in her age group, but particularly Dimity.

Curtsies & Conspiracies is a great follow-up to Etiquette & Espionage, and I really can’t wait to follow this group of characters into book three.

Book Review: Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

As you might recall, I kind of fell in love with Grave Mercy, the first book in the His Fair Assassin series, earlier this year. So you can just imagine how excited I was to read Dark Triumph, the sequel and Sybella’s story.

I started and finished Dark Triumph in one day. If possible, I might have liked it even more than the first one, and that’s saying something, because I freaking loved the first one.

dark-triumphSynopsis courtesy Goodreads:

Sybella arrives at the convent’s doorstep half mad with grief and despair. Those that serve Death are only too happy to offer her refuge—but at a price. The convent views Sybella, naturally skilled in the arts of both death and seduction, as one of their most dangerous weapons. But those assassin’s skills are little comfort when the convent returns her to a life that nearly drove her mad. And while Sybella is a weapon of justice wrought by the god of Death himself, He must give her a reason to live. When she discovers an unexpected ally imprisoned in the dungeons, will a daughter of Death find something other than vengeance to live for?

Essentially this is a Beauty and the Beast story (and you guys know what a sucker I am for those stories), only it’s Beauty that’s broken on the inside. Beast may have a fearsome appearance, but his kindness and loyalty are never in question.

I absolutely adored Sybella. She’s harsher than Ismae, both in her actions and her narration, and she comes across as cold to other characters. However, that’s almost as much a mask as the seductress one she wears. She’s built up a number of walls and defenses for very, very good reasons.

Her background is absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s amazing that Sybella has put herself back together as well as she has. The scenes where she was at her home were tense and sickening, and an understandable desire for vengeance drives her for a large part of the book.

I loved seeing how she grew both on her own and through her developing relationship with Beast, and Beast himself was just as much fun in this book as he was in Grave Mercy. I loved that we got to spend more time with him here and learn more about him, because I enjoyed the hell out of his character in the previous story.

Sybella’s faith was also an important part of this story, but her relationship with Saint Mortain was different from Ismae’s because her role as one of his handmaidens is different, and I liked seeing her struggles and questioning.

If there was one thing that I didn’t like, it was the very end. It came about really abruptly, and I was frankly shocked to turn the page and realize there wasn’t any more. I wish it had been a little more fleshed out.

But really, that was my only complaint about this story. It was well-paced and well-written, and such a fantastic follow-up to another excellent book. I really, really can’t wait for book three in this series.

Book Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

leviathanAs a steampunk fan, I’ve been looking forward to reading Leviathan for some time. I knew a very little bit about the world, which sounded cool, and I’m always interested to see what different authors come up with for steamupunk worldbuilding.

What I got with this one was a really fun, briskly paced YA novel that kicks off a trilogy I absolutely can’t wait to finish.

Alek is a prince who cannot inherit his father’s throne, but his mere existence upsets a very delicate balance that’s thrown off when his parents are killed. He’s spirited away from his house one night by a small band of loyal men, and now he’s on the run from his own people.

Deryn is a soldier in the British Air Service, serving aboard the massive airbeast Leviathan, with one tiny secret: she’s a girl, not a guy, and she’ll be kicked out if anybody discovers her secret.

With war threatening, the Leviathan is sent on a special urgent mission to the Ottoman Empire. Soon, Deryn and Alek will cross paths, and they’ll both be swept up in an effort to stem the advancing tide of war.

Most steampunk novels I’ve read tend to take place in the mid-to-late 1800s, but Leviathan offers us an alternate take on the beginning of World War I. If you remember history class, you probably remember the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, which kicked off the Great War in 1914. In Leviathan, though, their deaths have a bit more sinister and personal cause, though the ultimate effect—international war—is the same.

I loved the way Westerfeld wove actual history with fantasy and slightly futuristic technology, particularly in regards to the technology on both sides: fabricated beasts for the British, walking war machines for the Germans. The descriptions of both are fascinating, and I especially enjoyed Alek’s and Deryn’s reactions to the other’s chosen technology.

The beasties, in particular, are really cool in how they’re all created for different, specific purposes: the hydrogen sniffers that search the Leviathan for leaks, the flechette bats used in aerial combat, and even the Leviathan itself.

Westerfeld’s technique itself is brilliant, switching viewpoints every two chapters. After the first few, you know exactly whose head you’ll be in when. It’s refreshing, and it gives you a chance to really get the most out of each storyline before jumping to the other one.

Plus, there are subtle differences (and not-so-subtle ones) in the way he writes in Alek’s viewpoint versus Deryn’s. Even though he does a good job of letting the reader know whose head we’re in, you can tell the viewpoint character from the dialogue and internal cadence. Deryn’s voice is spotted with slang and cursing, while Alek sounds very much like the noble he is. It’s glorious.

I adored Deryn. She’s a very quick thinker, courageous and bold, loves to fly and loves being on an airship. She’s very bound to her duty as a soldier, but doesn’t let her pledge to king and country keep her from thinking for herself. I liked Alek as well, but he’s a bit stiffer initially, considering his background. However, he definitely grows on you over the course of the story.

The illustrations littered throughout the book are absolutely gorgeous. I actually paused in reading to soak up the goodness of the art.

If you’re into steampunk already, I think you’ll definitely enjoy Leviathan. If you aren’t, then Leviathan is, honestly, a great introduction to the genre. The characters are great, the worldbuilding is phenomenal, and I really, really can’t wait to read more.

Two in One Book Review: The Strange Case of Finley Jayne and The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross

The ebook version I got of The Girl in the Steel Corset came with the prequel novella, called The Strange Case of Finley Jayne. Oddly, I think if I hadn’t read the prequel first, I may have enjoyed the actual novel more.

strange-case-of-finley-jayneBut as it was, while I really liked The Strange Case of Finley Jayne, I couldn’t finish The Girl in the Steel Corset.

In The Strange Case of Finley Jayne, we meet Finley just as she has lost her position in an aristocratic household. Not just for punching the governess, but because Finley did so hard enough to shatter the woman’s teeth and send her flying across the room. Not exactly something a teenage girl ought to be able to do.

Finley is worried about losing her job, worried about telling her parents, and worried more about this strange “darkness” that seems to overtake her whenever she gets frightened or angry enough. It makes her stronger, faster, and enhances her senses, but it also makes her bolder and more violent. She has no idea what’s wrong with her, but it terrifies her.

The very next day, however, Finley is offered a position as a lady’s maid in Lady Morton’s household. The job seems too good to be true, but curious, Finley accepts anyway. It turns out the lady is well aware of Finley’s more violent tendencies, and is hoping to use them to protect her daughter, Phoebe.

I really liked this novella for a number of reasons. For one, the story perfectly fit the novella format, which is a lot harder to do than it sounds. Sometimes authors try to do too much for a short format, but this one works.

Finley’s dual nature is interesting, though sometimes it was difficult to tell which version of her viewpoint we were supposed to be in. It still very much feels like it’s the same person whether her darker nature or her more timid nature is in control.

Plus, even if Finley’s darker nature is more violent, it’s also very protective. She essentially acts as a bodyguard for Phoebe, and does a phenomenal job of it. She punched the governess at the beginning of the story because the governess struck a young boy for trying to take a treat off a cart. It’s great when she’s in that mindset, because she’s bolder and brasher, but not stupid about it. I loved watching Finley investigate the mystery.

I also really liked Lady Morton. She really wants nothing more than to protect her daughter and make sure she’s happy, and she’ll do that by whatever means necessary. She knows something’s not right, but she also knows she’s not in a position to fix it. That’s where Finley comes in.

We don’t get a whole lot of worldbuilding in the novella, but there’s enough that the steampunk aspects don’t feel entirely like window dressing. There’s a great scene with two runaway mechanical horses that was easily my favorite in the entire novella.

There was one little part from the villain’s viewpoint that felt really extraneous—Finley figured out the information shared in that scene in the very next chapter and it didn’t add anything else except perhaps to confirm that said villain was, in fact, a villain.

But really, that scene was the only serious misstep. Other than that, The Strange Case of Finley Jayne was a solidly entertaining novella.

And I enjoyed it enough that I was looking forward to reading The Girl in the Steel Corset, which started off well. Once again, Finley is facing trouble at her job, but this time it’s from the young lord of the house, who is trying to force himself on her. With the help of her darker nature, Finley beats him into unconsciousness and then runs away—straight into the velocycle (motorcycle) of Griffin King, the Duke of Greythorne.

girl-steel-corsetWhat Finley doesn’t know is that Griffin and his friends have special powers, much like her, and for the first time, Finley starts to feel like she might be able to belong somewhere. However, a devious criminal mastermind called the Machinist threatens to tear their group—and England—apart.

The novel starts off great. I loved the scene at the beginning between Finley and Lord Felix, their fight, and the terror and excitement warring within her. Unfortunately, as soon as that scene is over, the story seems to dive right into solidly mediocre territory and stay there.

My biggest problem with the novel came because of the apparently fluid nature of Finley’s darker side. In the novella, Finley gets violent, but not murderously so. She never hurts Phoebe or Lady Morton, and only neutralizes people she perceives as threats to those she cares about. And she’s much the same way in The Girl in the Steel Corset, only she’s protecting herself.

So it really surprised me how quick others—and even Finley herself—were to accuse her of murder. It just seemed so at odds with how she’d acted, even when her darker half was in control, that I couldn’t really reconcile it.

Then there was the standard love triangle with Finley, Griffin, and an underground crime lord named Jack Dandy that I think was supposed to illustrate the difference between Finley’s two natures and what they found attractive, but really just made me roll my eyes.

Honestly, none of the viewpoint characters were really that interesting to me and the ones that were—like Emily—weren’t on the page enough to make me feel like reading was worth it.

Then I had a number of issues with the writing itself.

Problem the First: Finley’s dual personas
Once again, there wasn’t a marked difference in narrative between Finley’s split personalities. While that wasn’t as big of a deal in the novella, in the full novel, it’s an issue, particularly since reconciling Finley’s dual natures is a plot point.

Her darker nature didn’t seem to be awful enough for me to understand why she was so upset about it, particularly since she’d made it work for her so well in The Strange Case of Finley Jayne. It’s almost like she takes a step backward as a character by the beginning of the novel.

Problem the Second: Plot and character inconsistencies
There also seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies between the prequel novella and the novel. For example, in The Girl in the Steel Corset, Finley thinks, regarding a ball:

She’d never been to one before—not as a guest. She’d sat in a stupid room with other ladies maids and tapped her foot to the music while sipping warm lemonade, but never had she been one of the dancers or a debutante in a beautiful gown.

However, in The Strange Case of Finley Jayne, Finley attends an engagement ball not as Phoebe’s maid, but posing as her cousin from the country. Considering that scene and that plot point are such a huge part of the novella, you’d think Finley would have remembered. That kind of character and story inconsistency is, sadly, prevalent throughout the entire novel.

I can totally understand the prequel novella was most likely written second. But in that case, you really ought to make sure that the character and their life story syncs up with where they are at the beginning of the actual novel.

Problem the Third: Pete and repeat were on a boat…
Cross tends to repeat herself in the narration, so certain paragraphs or exchanges feel twice as long as they should be.

Jasper made a face at his mention of the subterranean railway. The cowboy didn’t like tight spaces any more than Griffin did.

“No,” Griff remarked with a small smile. “I don’t like it either.”

How is “The cowboy didn’t like tight spaces any more than Griffin did” any kind of necessary if Griffin is going to tell us in the very next line that he doesn’t like the subway either?

This kind of repetition is annoying as hell to read, and it happens multiple times throughout the book. It’s almost like another editing pass could probably have cut another thousand words out just by removing superfluous sentences.

Problem the Fourth: Whose head are we in?
Cross occasionally has some absolutely wonderful lines, like this one at the beginning of chapter 5:

If the city of London was a body, Whitechapel would be the groin; a great unwashed area that only showed itself under the cover of darkness, and only for the most salacious of entertainments.

Unfortunately, this is then tempered by the fact that it then takes three pages to get to whose viewpoint we’re in (there are three different viewpoint characters), so by the time I found out it was Finley, I had already spent two paragraphs thinking it was one of the guys. It was jarring to realize I was wrong, which threw me out of the story.

Finally, at chapter 14, when I realized I was reading more out of duty as opposed to getting any real enjoyment out of it, I called it quits. It wasn’t necessarily bad, per se, but overall it seemed to be solidly mediocre, with enough irritating bits that the few good things couldn’t quite compensate.

Book Review – Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

etiquette-and-espionageIf you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you may recall that 1) I like steampunk a lot, and 2) I kind of fell in love with Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series last year. So you can imagine my absolute GLEE upon finding out her next series would be a YA steampunk series called The Finishing School, set in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate, only about 25 years earlier.

The first book, Etiquette & Espionage, came out earlier this year, and I snapped it up the second I got a chance. And I enjoyed it just as much as I hoped I would.

Our main character is Sophronia, a 14-year-old who is far too curious (and not nearly ladylike enough) for her own good. When her mother finally despairs of ever getting Sophronia to be presentable, a solution appears in the form of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. In less than an hour, Sophronia is packed off to the school to, at the very least, learn to curtsy properly.

What Sophronia finds, though, is that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s isn’t just any old finishing school. The girls there are being trained in covert operations, as spies and assassins.

But the finishing school isn’t the only surprise for Sophronia. Someone at the school has stolen something very important, and there are a lot of very powerful people who want it back. Sophronia’s first year at finishing school promises to be an interesting one.

We have a whole slew of brand-new characters, a couple of old familiar faces, and a whole slew of new settings, not the least of which is the Finishing School itself.

“My goodness,” said Sophronia. “It looks like a caterpillar that has overeaten.”

And it did. It wasn’t so much a dirigible as three dirigibles mashed together to form one long chain of oblong, inflated balloons. Below them dangled a multilevel series of decks, most open to the air, but some closed off, with windows reflecting back the dying sun. At the back, a colossal set of propellers churned slowly, and above them billowed a massive sail–probably more for guidance than propulsion. A great quantity of steam wafted out from below the lower back decks, floating away to join the mist as if responsible for creating it. Black smoke puffed sedately out of three tall smokestacks.

Sophronia was enchanted.

Allow me to reiterate that:

AIRSHIP. ASSASSIN. SCHOOL.

It is just as cool as it sounds. Sophronia, being a very curious character (and being at a school that encourages such things as long as you can get away with it), spends much of the book exploring Mademoiselle Geraldine’s and all its myriad nooks and crannies. It’s fascinating, and I loved what we got to see.

Sophronia herself is a great deal of fun. She’s such a proactive character, clever and quick on her feet, and usually the one to figure a way both into and out of trouble. I really enjoyed being in her head and watching her figure out the mystery at the school.

(Also, I read Bumbersnoot as a steampunk K9 from Doctor Who. I think that actually makes it a little better.)

Plus, as a fan of the Parasol Protectorate series, it was great to see the younger versions of characters I’d come to love from those books. Each familiar face made me squeal with glee, but they’re introduced in such a way that you don’t have to know anything about the previous series to enjoy them.

Carriger’s writing is, as always, an absolute treat to read, with a perfectly hilarious and Victorian voice that makes her novels so much fun. Between that and the amusing character names, I don’t think I quit grinning throughout the entire book.

If I had a quibble, it would be with the final fight scene. I was a little confused at times about what was going on, and I was surprised Sophronia could slip in and out of it as well as she did. But the rest of the book was good enough that it didn’t really affect my overall enjoyment of it.

If you like steampunk, you really need to read this book. If you’ve never read a steampunk novel, then Etiquette & Espionage is a really good place to start.

The Book List: The Hunger Games Trilogy

I know that I spend most of my time here talking about movies and television shows, but I am an equally voracious reader. I’ve gone months without picking up a book before (usually when I’m working on writing my own stuff), but inevitably I’ll hit a two-week period where I read anything and everything I can get my hands on. It’s not unheard of for me to go through 5-6 books in a week, and if I really like an author, I will hunt down everything they’ve written and read it. (Right now, Brandon Sanderson is my new favorite, and the only book of his I haven’t read is The Way of Kings. Because, dear God, man, 1250 pages? Really? You couldn’t break that up a little?)

The Hunger GamesThe most recent series I just finished was The Hunger Games, and by “just finished,” I mean I just put down the third book earlier this afternoon. After reading pretty much all day. Because seriously, it’s good.

The trilogy — The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay — are dystopian YA (young adult) novels, set sometime in the future when America has fallen and been replaced by Panem, a country made up of 13 districts and one Capitol, from which the President rules with an iron fist.

Seventy-four years before the events of the first book, District 13 was bombed off the map during a violent rebellion, and every year since, the Capitol has hosted the Hunger Games to remind the districts where the power really lies. Each year, 24 children between the ages of 12 and 18 — one boy and one girl from each district — are drawn from a lottery to be a “tribute” in the Games. The tributes are thrown into an arena to murder each other until just one is left standing, an entertainment that is broadcast around the entire country of Panem.

Yeah, these books are just filled with sunshine and roses, I tell ya.

Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old protagonist, lives the Seam, the poorest part of District 12, the poorest district in the country. For five years, she’s been the main provider for her family, ever since her father was killed in a mine explosion.

On the day of the reaping, when the tributes are chosen, she volunteers to go to the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister, Prim, whose name is drawn. And thus what begins as a fight for survival ultimately morphs into a violent fight against the Capitol, with Katniss at the forefront.

One of the major reasons that these books are so successful is because way they’re written. Unlike most novels, these books are in first person and told in present tense, which brings in a sense of immediacy that draws you in and keeps you in suspense. You’re right there with Katniss as she’s hunting, sneaking, trying to find a way to survive the deadly traps that the Capitol throws at her at every turn. The present tense took a few pages for me to get used to, but once I did, I was hooked.

In addition to the immediacy of the viewpoint, you’re in the mind of a strong, likable character in Katniss. She’s practical, logical, cautious, and smart. She’s always looking for angles, for the motives behind actions. She is very much a survivor — breaking the laws of District 12 to hunt in the woods outside the fence, which is how she manages to keep her family alive. As an excellent hunter and archer, she has the skills to keep herself a contender in the arena.

However, being so practical means that she’s completely at a loss when it comes to romance and to her own feelings, which are torn between two boys: Gale, her best friend and fellow hunter, and Peeta, her fellow District 12 tribute in the Hunger Games. She cares for both of them deeply, to the point that she will fight to the death to protect them. But the love triangle persists throughout the novels, as Katniss doesn’t really know her own heart — and neither do we.

Being so tightly in her mind (and I must give credit to author Suzanne Collins — the woman does not break viewpoint) makes for some excellent tension, but also for some very interesting moments when Katniss is hallucinating or knocked out or incapacitated in other ways. For the most part, this works, but there are a few times in the last book where it starts to feel just a bit like a cop-out. You get to a good part, but then something happens to Katniss, and you pick up a few days later when she’s semi-coherent again.

Although Katniss is a great character, the rest of the cast is equally memorable. There’s Haymitch, the only District 12 tribute to win the Hunger Games, and thus the only mentor for Katniss and Peeta. He’s a grumpy man who’s spent the past few decades burying his memories of the arena in a bottle of liquor, but he and Katniss have quite a bit in common. There’s Rue, the female tribute from District 11, who reminds Katniss so much of her sister. And there is Cinna, Katniss’s stylist and friend, whose brilliant designs help her out during the Games.

On the really plus side, Collins is not afraid to hurt, handicap, and kill her characters. People you like are brutally tortured and killed. Some lose limbs. Others lose their minds. Over the course of the novels, Katniss herself is poisoned, shot, blown up and whipped. And she does not escape unscathed mentally, either — she has severe PTSD, which includes terrible nightmares that plague her throughout the books. Each of the deaths, you feel almost as keenly as she does.

Of course, a series like this is only as good as its villain, and that villain is President Snow. Although the Games themselves are more of the antagonist in the first book, Snow steps to the forefront in the second.

I bought Catching Fire based solely on the second chapter, where Katniss sees him for the first time after the end of the Games. For the next two books, even when he’s not on-screen, Snow is hovering around Katniss, like the overpowering scent of the roses he wears. He is cold, calculating, ruthless, and frightening. Katniss, who fears very little, fears President Snow.

The big reason I picked up these books is because of the forthcoming movie, which is scheduled for 2012. And if the movie manages to be even half as good as the book, it will be well worth watching in theaters at least once, if not multiple times.

Are these happy books? Not even close. If you want something like that, I have a list of cozy mysteries, comedies, and romance novels that you will enjoy immensely. But if you want a gripping novel with a phenomenal protagonist, a tense survival story, and a good ending, start reading The Hunger Games and don’t stop till you finish Mockingjay. You won’t regret it.

Disclaimer: Yes, I own two of these books. I borrowed the third from a friend. Yes, those links go to Amazon. No, they are not affiliate links. No, I did not get paid to write this review. Yes, I still think you should read these books immediately. I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts.