In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.

Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series was my first foray into steampunk. The series centers on Sophronia Temminnick’s exploits as she navigates Miss Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, complete with requisite Victorian-era social graces and espionage. Even the focus on fashion is deadly at Miss Geraldine’s, and Sophronia advances through the quartet by gaining loyal friends, cunning enemies, and an education as an intelligencer that just might save the empire. Through all four books, I have loved Carriger’s wordplay and wit that she brings to Young Adult Literature, a reading category that too often takes itself too seriously. In her fourth and final installment, Manners & Mutiny, Carriger ups the drama, romance, and violence to finish Sophronia in style.

It’s not only our habits that shape who we are. It’s also our chosen intimacies.

As much as I enjoyed this book and the series as a whole, I will say that I think it needed more editing; there were several spots, especially in the opening pages, where Carriger’s language was not as crisp as usual. It also bears the burden (as so many serials do) of trying to move the plot forward while reminding readers of characters’ histories—a difficult balancing act that sometimes bogs down the story. That said, I particularly liked Sophronia’s increased ethical awareness. At one point, classmate and friend Agatha asks Sophronia:

“‘Must everyone have an ulterior motive, even your family? What has Mademoiselle Geraldine’s done to you?’

For the first time Sophronia worried that her training—the first thing she had ever really been good at—was turning her hard. Was it negatively coloring her view of the world? It was protecting her, of course, but at what cost? And here was Agatha—whose father pushed her and whose mother was absent in all ways but death—noticing.

Sophronia turned to her quiet little friend. ‘I don’t mean to be harsh.’

‘No, you don’t. That’s what worries me.’”

With their maturation and impending graduation, the pressure to succeed becomes greater for Sophronia and her classmates, yet, because of Agatha, Sophronia pauses to examine her conscience and consider the ideology of her education. It’s the mark of a great friend in Agatha that she can alert Sophronia to this hard truth.

This exchange also points out the “double life” motif essential to spy stories. Still, it calls to mind my more historically-oriented reading—Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, and, incidentally, the book on which the AMC show Turn is based. I recommend both book and show, though one point Rose makes in his historical study is that espionage at the time of the American Revolution was considered necessary but not glamorous, close as it is to its cousin, deceit. Sophronia, though a fictional heroine set in an alternative historical vision of Victorian England, contemplates the cumulative effect of duplicity on her character and relationships. It’s a question that looms large over the entire novel, as secrets unfold, alliances shift, and Sophronia wonders whom she can really trust.

By the book’s end, Sophronia “finally took on the responsibility of allowing him to love her” (and, no, I won’t spoil the story and reveal whom the vague pronoun “him” refers to there). Her decision takes such a long time because she contemplates its consequences that will echo through the rest of her life, but the wording here is revealing, too. Sophronia’s marks in loyalty are high and in seduction low, but her true coming-of-age in this story is learning to believe in her friends without knowing everything in the plan, which is, at its essence, trust. It is intimacy that makes her uncomfortable, and intimacy that is at odds with the hard exterior she cultivates as one of Miss Geraldine’s finest.

The book is about manners and mutiny, as its title suggests, but I would add another “m-word” to the list and claim that it’s also a book about motives. Not only does Sophronia struggle throughout the text to determine the motives of key players around her—from supernatural figures to her own friends and family—she is forced to reflect on her own motives in the political scene as well as the personal. There is no divine figure referenced in Sophronia’s world, but the examination of conscience is as essential to her character development as to ours. As much as I would love to believe that adults (naturally, myself included) have graduated from this need to regularly assess our real intentions, I don’t think I ever will—or ought—to outgrow the prayer “Search me and know me.” It is too easy for me, like Sophronia, to do the right thing for the wrong reasons or to lie to ourselves about our own actions and intentions. I get the feeling we’re not alone there.

And while Sophronia is professionally-trained to live a “double life,” that only makes it more essential for her to evaluate her own character. It also makes her devotion to her friends all the more endearing, because when Agatha speaks the truth in love, Sophronia really listens. That is a rare friendship and one well worth preserving. Though I don’t fly about in a dirigible or take tea with vampires or arm myself with weapons disguised as accessories, I too, can take a lesson from Agatha and Sophronia. It reminds me not to undervalue those few friends who tell the truth out of love for me, and who deserve my attention. It reminds me to ask God to probe my spirit and show me my faults, even—especially—the ones I think I really need or really could justify somehow as virtues…And it reminds me that I am a Christian who likes to read stories of espionage but is called not to live a “double life.”

It’s not only our habits that shape who we are. It’s also our chosen intimacies. I am well-trained in several areas (though, sadly, neither etiquette nor espionage), but my relationships with God and my loved ones direct the flow of my gifts. It takes almost losing her life for Sophronia to risk the intimacy that makes her life worth living. Character is performative in that we become what we do; we are, as it turns out, creatures of habit. But the most important things that we do, as Sophronia herself learns, is whom and how we love.