It's hard not to love a book that begins with the sentence, "And then there was an explosion." It's also hard not to love a young-adult-girl-power-steampunk-romp that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Adrienne Kress, author of the middle grade Alex and the Ironic Gentlemen, has entered the young adult market with a bang. Her newest book, The Friday Society, is the origin story of how three teen girls in London end up working together to solve a series of crimes and murders. With the help of an exceptionally brilliant parrot.
Top image: Rudy Faber
Kress introduces her three protagonists in three sets of matched chapters, with witty chapter titles. There's Cora the lab and personal assistant to Lord White, a member of parliament and secret inventor. Nellie's a magician's assistant to the Great Raheem. Michiko is a Japanese expat who is the assistant to a fight instructor. The fact that they are all assistants is part of the point of the book -– this may be a world of steam cabs, underground secret labs and hovering ships, but there are still certain expectations when it comes to women. So while each girl has been recognized by her employer for her exceptional skills, the wider world ignores them or treats them as just another pretty face.
Each of the girls manages to be both different from the others and three-dimensional. Cora is no-nonsense organizer and inventor in her own right, with some nascent feminist leanings she can't quite articulate. She was scooped up from the East End by Lord White as a child, and has been trained for high society and science. Nellie is bubbly and sweet, but her experiences in the theater and as a magician's assistant give her a remarkable set of skills, including lock-picking and counting cards.
Michiko is perhaps the most interesting of the three girls. While the other two are orphans, Michiko ran away from home in Japan and managed to be trained as a samurai. Kress has clearly done at least some research here, setting Michiko's training during the period when the samurai class was outlawed. Attending an illegal school, Michiko is able to learn the katana. (Her samurai master's derision for her, however, seems odd, since martial arts like naginatajutsu would have been part of the training of the daughters of samurai.) When she fails to be accepted by the other trainees or her master, she travels to England with Sir Callum Feilding-Shaw, who is a terrible, racist, abusive person. Michiko's struggles with things like how to be a proper samurai, dealing with Callum, or her nascent English skills are not enough to blunt her wry observations or indomitable spirit. Kress manages the rather difficult task of making Michiko feel relatable, while through her eyes the supposedly familiar world of London seems foreign.
The girls are complex and serious characters, but much of the plot is willing to poke fun at the tropes of steampunk, convoluted plots of supervillains, and mad scientists. One of the important scientific advances of this world is cavorite, borrowed from H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon. Toward the end of the book, the villain explains the plan to destroy London and escape and Cora replies, "Well, thank you so much for sharing all this with us in such grand detail."
Kress has also been clearly paying attention to the arguments regarding the aesthetics vs. the scientific mechanics of steampunk. Goggles are of the useful rather than decorative variety. When Nellie actually puts on a corset and half-skirt made of clock gear patterned fabric, the other characters seem non-plussed. But Nellie explains, "I like the clock theme. That's why I got it."
Kress also pokes fun at the whole writing process. There's a gun called "The Chekov" and the chapters have titles like "So, Isn't It About Time for That Gala Everyone's Been Going on About?" and "Just Your Average Turn-of-the-Century Slumber Party with a Dead Body. You Know How It Goes. " This makes the clearly purposeful linguistic anachronisms like "a bright red dress that makes her look super hot but not giving a shit" seem more like playing with the genre's inevitable anachronisms than succumbing to them.
But for all the fun the book is having, Kress has put a lot of thought into building series of parallel though different relationships for the girls. Their relationships with their employers run from abusive to emotionally conflicting to parental. All three of the teens end up in relationships (romantic and otherwise) with guys about their own age, which are really about the girls' working out their own psychological needs. But it's the girls' relationships with each other are probably the highlight of the book. The girls are each separately drawn into investigating what turns out to be a larger conspiracy. As they continue to not-so-coincidentally bump into each other, they learn to like and trust each other. When they finally realize they must work together as a team, the building emotional building blocks are already there.
Kress's biggest problem is introducing too many ideas and contraptions too close to the end. Several pieces had clearly fallen into place and stopping just before the climax to spend a lot of time talking and describing new things was a little frustrating. It seemed that most of contraptions could have been easily introduced earlier. The themes of reputation and propriety could have been foregrounded earlier so that decision that those ideas informed felt more organic. And it was hard not to feel that Michiko, who now had new allies and friendships, got the short end of the stick when it came to the ending, since she's still stuck with her horrible boss. Hopefully the next book, because The Friday Society is the first in a planned series, will deal with that forthwith.
This sort of zany steampunk YA will definitely appeal to fans of Alex and the Ironic Gentleman. Kress goes to great, if occasionally silly, lengths to ensure her characters don't inflict any death on others, keeping the book on the relatively young end of YA, so even recent middle grade readers could easily pick it up (though they might need to be warned about the kissing). The strong relationships, teamwork and feats of daring-do are similar to Ally Carter's bestselling series, Gallagher Girls and The Heist Society. Fans of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series would probably enjoy this as well, though Carriger has her own YA series beginning in February. But if you're just looking for a fun time with some brilliant girls, The Friday Society is definitely a book for you.