Some time has passed since the last book – Claire has graduated from university and is ready to embark on her new career, flush with success. And the Mopsies, now 16, have both graduated from school with a strong education under their bodices and ready to take on the world. Once they decide exactly how they want to do that
It’s a question that haunts Lizzie, fearful of splitting up from her sister, yet not wanting to follow down the same path. She has aspirations of being a lady – but will the barriers of class and upbringing ever truly allow her to become such? And what about Claire’s expectations and disappointment?
Into that comes some startling revelations about her past and new connections she never knew she had; but with them the difficult decision as to who truly counts as family?
This book was a little bit of a different shift from the last few books in the series. We have the obvious change in the protagonist which leads to a shift in its own right – but that is followed through for the whole book.
By this stage in the series, Lady Claire has achieved so much and proved herself over and over again. She is a skilled engineer, she is recognised as such. She has a career ahead of her and she has contacts and friends among the highest echelons – Claire’s presence in this book is relatively minimal but what there is is one of rousing success. And I love that – I love seeing the rewards for all of Claire’s hard work and dedication. I love that she has achieved so much and we get some righteous recognition for that. And I love that she still deeply cares about the Mopsies – and the whole flock – and is still willing to drop everything to rush across the country to play the Lady of Devices riding to the rescue, lightning rifle in hand (and, in the same way, how Claire can be hurt by the people she loves – because the fact a thoughtless word can hurt her so badly says a lot about how much affection Claire has for the Mopsies). It wonderfully adds to Claire’s story without her being the centre of this book – this is her victory and we can see how much Claire has changed from the character who first appeared in Lady of Devices.
Now switch to the Mopsies, Elizabeth specifically, and she’s a very different character. Not just a very different character from the accomplished, successful Claire today, but also different from Lady Claire as we first saw her. From the very beginning, Lady Claire has been true to herself. She has always known who she is, always known what she wanted and always known what she was capable of. Armed with the advantages of her education and her upbringing, she has always had an adamant sense of self and a powerful confidence in herself. She knows what her goals are – it’s fighting to achieve them in a society rife with sexism and her own reduced circumstances. Her identity and goals have always been solid – but she has had to fight incredibly hard to be able to express both.
But when we get to Elizabeth we have a different story. Lizzie spent most of her life surviving on the streets of London – and even then she knows how lucky she was that she fell in with friends and good people and wasn’t attacked, raped or forced into prostitution as could so easily have happened (fates that are so far removed from the upper classes that one man can’t even stand to have her talk about them!) And now she’s torn between two worlds – on the one hand chided for slipping into the accents of the poor and working class, yet at the same time criticised for not respecting her flock properly – particularly giving Trigg and Lewis the cold shoulder and appearing to regard them as beneath her (while feeling incredibly conflicted). There’s the complexity of trying to fit in with what she regards as her new social peers while, at the same time they would ostracise her when they know her actual origins and if she associates with the flock. While Lady Claire always knew who she was and who she wanted to be, Lizzie doesn’t have that same surety – about who she is or her ultimate goal or how to achieve it. In many ways, Lizzie seems to be finding herself in this book.
She also faces a massive barrier from the class exclusion which is further exacerbated by the fact that Claire, for all her goodwill, simply does not understand just how much of a barrier it is (which is excellently well done because, though Claire is a wonderful character and a wonderful person – she still has a privilege there that leaves her blinkered) creating a gulf of misunderstanding.
And I like that Lizzie isn’t just looking at following in Claire’s footsteps – she has other examples of powerful women, such as Lady Dunsmuir giving her more role models. There’s more than one way to be a strong, capable woman. I love the complexities of Claire not understanding Lizzie’s choices as well as Lizzie’s own conflict – both admiring what lady Dunsmuir can achieve but unsure as to exactly how or what that involves and whether that is her (or even achievable by her). Lizzie is also intelligent in a separate manner to Claire – while Claire is brilliant mechanically, Lizzie has a flare for logical deduction and detective work that makes her a little different.
This makes for a very nuanced and complex character and characterisation that also continues to challenge both gender and class barriers in an excellent manner. And all of that gets even more confusing when we add in the revelations about Lizzie’s past and raises a whole new question about the definition of family – specifically biology vs those who you have formed familial bonds with.
This all means that the book is, perhaps, a little slower than previous books in the series. There’s a lot of character development, a lot of doubt and internal conflict and a good deal less swashbuckling goodness. Not that the swashbuckling doesn’t happen – swash is indeed buckled (how does one buckle swash, anyway?) but the need to set Lizzie up as a character with personal conflicts superseded the shiny devices and daring-do
But when the daring-do comes in more towards the end of the book, it’s the same exciting, joyous romp of cunning plans action and angry-Claire with a lightning rifle we love so much, complete with a daring rescue, women more than capable of rescuing themselves, cunning inventions and a dark, dangerous conspiracy. I don’t want to downplay how good the action is – because this series delivers some extremely fun action – but it’s not the focus of this book compared to Lizzie finding herself and her path.
The treatment of women in this book continues to be as awesome as we’ve come to expect from the series - in addition to the above with Lizzie, we also have Claire again faced with the choice of her career or a marriage that will put her quietly in a stately home and not to use the education she fought so hard for. What’s particularly powerful about this is that Ian is not a cruel or controlling man as her last suitor was, making it a clear indictment of the society and expectations of women imposed even by very nice men who Claire likes. It’s not just “the bad ones”.
Unfortunately we still have no GBLT characters. On POC we have the ever-so-subtle Lady Dunsmuir and Trigg both of whom have very small roles – though I hold out some hope that Trigg will become more integral to Lizzie’s story considering what we have seen so far. We do have, again as mentioned above, some excellent class commentary.
This story is an excellent introduction into a new chapter in the Magnificent Devices series, showing the world can continue even with Lady Claire taking a back seat. This makes me immensely happy because it means one of my favourite steampunk series now has nearly infinite scope for continuation and expansion. With this book, Shelley Adina has shown us she can go beyond Claire and still keep all the awesome elements that make me love this series – while at the same time ensuring the characters are not just cookie cutter copies of the original. May the series continue going from strength to strength!