Reader, after you finished Robin LaFevers' His Fair Assasains series and powered through Julie Berry's The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place and frothed through the lighter Finishing School novels by Gail Carringer and plowed through Charlie N. Holmberg's Paper Magician novels, did you, perchance, have a yen for something more? Already finished with the Ally Carter Spy novels, you are now ready for some alternate history -- and some more devious, bright, recalcitrant and slightly cutthroat flowers of gentle young womanhood. Long may they reign.
Summary: Stranje House even sounds strange. It's a reform school for girls, and Georgiana Fitzwilliam most ardently does not wish to be reformed. She does not want to learn to take tea, dance properly, or curtsey beautifully. She does not wish to compose pastels and watercolors and sit with her spine properly rigid, as a successfully unexceptional and marriageable miss of the beau monde must do in 1814. All she would LIKE to do is finish her experiment. All she was trying to do was perfect a recipe for invisible ink - the sort of recipe which might have passed invisible orders across enemy lines and saved the life of her brother, who died fighting Napoleon. She had no intention of setting her father's stables on fire, taking out half the neighbor's orchards, nor nearly killing all of her father's hounds and horses. Nevertheless... she has done so, and now the piper must be paid. Stranje House has an iron maiden. A rack. And a handful of possibly dangerous, odd, nosy, pushy girls who have also been abandoned to Ms. Stranje's tender mercies. Georgiana is terrified - furious - and determined to finish that ink. Fortunately, her determination is well-supported. Ms. Stranje wants that ink -- desperately -- and so do two gentleman called Captain Grey and Lord Wyatt. If those fighting to keep Napoleon from regaining power don't have a way to get messages to each other, he may make another try at being emperor of Europe... and that simply won't do.
Peaks: I'm not always fond of alternate history novels because my understanding of Actual History (TM) is muddled enough, but this is a fun and fast-paced "what if" that focuses mostly on individuals and less on the big events. The back of the novel gives a quick update on Actual History vs. Stuff The Author Made Up, which is helpful.
I love school stories to an unbelievable extent. The ensemble cast gives the author lots of time to explore individual girls' stories, and to give more life and shape to some of them who aren't very clear to the reader at this point. They each have mysterious skills, and this being a SERIES just tickles me to death, as there will be plenty of time to find out all we could desire about this school.
I think that the Headmistress having her own romantic leanings is awfully sweet as well, though the school and its students seem to exist in a bubble outside of Polite Society. Aside from a Beautiful Villainness (think Disney Wicked Queen), no one seems to care what any of them at Stranje House do - and I wonder if that will change... Time will tell.
Valleys: The author has previously been known for writing Regency romance - and this book is described as such - so perhaps the heroine be forgiven for a fairly fevered and immediate crush on Sebastian, Lord Wyatt. What surprised me was that it became so serious so quickly - because their interactions were for me not very developed. Kirkus compares their "dazzling wits and flashing eyes" to Darcy and Lizzie, and there's some of that, yes, but I felt their relationship needed quite a bit more time to mature into the "I'd die for you" stage, but what do I know? At any rate, while I personally found it a little ridiculous, I know that I am Old and Crotchety and that myriads of the young romantics will enjoy the heck out of the romance.
I will admit disappointment in Madame Cho, however, one of two non-white British characters in the novel. Because everyone has somewhat of an air of mystery to the blindered Georgiana, and because it takes her forever to twig to the fact that This Is Not Your Mother's Reform School (TM) she is slow on the uptake and doesn't realize Madame Cho character and importance to the school. Unfortunately, really, neither do we.
Madame Cho's first physical description, after "Chinese" and Ms. Stranje explaining that she teaches Asian history and "helps" in the discipline room is "crafty as a black cat." Immediately plunged so far into the cliché of the Mysterious Dragon Lady of the Orient, it doesn't appear that Madame Cho will easily get out. It's a shame that she had virtually no speaking parts in the book and no character development, because, with her only action smacking the girls with her cane, threatening, barking orders at them, or lurking silently around the edges of the room, she simply exists as ...well, a stereotype. I kept searching the story for her -- surely she had more to give to the plot -- but sadly, she disappears 3/4 of the way through the book.
Conclusion: Despite a few flaws and unevenness plaguing this first book in the Stranje House series, there's nevertheless a lot to recommend this quick-paced, romance-saturated romp, filled with quick-thinking, devious girls and their adventuresome exploits. Take a couple of hours to yourself and grab your bag of caramel corn - this book is just as super-sweet and compulsively readable.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Tor Teen, via NetGalley. After May 19th, you can find THE SCHOOL FOR UNUSUAL GIRLS by Kathleeen Baldwin at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!