Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Strange Case of Finley Jayne by Kady Cross [Review]

Note:  At the time of the publication of this blog entry this novella was still available for free from amazon.com as a Kindle download.  I don’t know how much longer this will be the case, but it’s worth checking the website.
This story serves as an introduction to a new young adult series by Kady Cross called The Steampunk Chronicles.  The first of these books, The Girl in the Steel Corset, was released on May 24, 2011, and continues Finley’s adventures as she discovers who her father was, exactly what she is, and if there are others in the world like her.  Personally, I think this short story is an excellent introduction to the series:  The pacing is elegant, the action is well written, and Finley is a gem of a character with enough of a backstory to warrant this kind of supplemental material.  This prequel is a brilliant move because it gives the reader a chance to see some of Finley’s life before she is thrown into the events of the series, and quite frankly, I’m impatient to see where she goes from here!  This is the kind of YA literature I like:  It’s smart, there are a lot of details about Victorian England embedded in the text, and the characters have the kind of ambiguity that promotes ethical development in young adults. This is the kind of book I look forward to recommending to a school librarian or putting in a classroom library. 
In this novella the reader is introduced to Finley Jayne, a young woman who lives in late nineteenth-century London.  Unlike many heroines in young adult fiction, Finley has a loving mother and stepfather she loves and has a close relationship with.  But her parents are book merchants who are barely keeping their heads above water, and the teenaged Finley has to work away from home to support herself.  This might be a less complicated endeavor for anyone other than Finley:  She’s different, and she knows it.  Matters come to a head when Finley is fired for striking another servant in the household where she is employed—the servant was abusing her small charge—but everyone is horrified when Finley strikes the woman and literally knocks her teeth out.  Finley returns home in disgrace and trying to figure out what she’s going to do next now that she can no longer count on an all-important letter of reference to secure a new job. 
But Finley doesn’t have to go looking:  Beautiful Lady Morton walks into the bookshop one day looking to hire Finley as a companion for her daughter, Phoebe.  As Finley learns more about Phoebe she becomes confused:  What could a young woman who is engaged and about to be married need with a companion?  But Lady Morton offers an incredible salary and Finley can’t say no.  It helps that Phoebe is a lovely girl, and the two young women become fast friends. As events unfold Finley discovers that Lady Morton knows that Finley is more than she appears, and has hired her as a sort of body guard for Phoebe, whose marriage was arranged by her father without her mother’s permission.  What is Phoebe’s fiancé Lord Vincent up to, and what, exactly, does Lady Morton expect Finley to protect Phoebe from?  Amidst all of this, she has to figure out her other, powerful, half and make decisions about how she controls or uses her ability. 
I  appreciate how Kady Cross seems to have figured out many of the concerns that are central to Steampunk: Finley’s life is deeply affected by her social class, her gender, and the technological development of the world she lives in.  Although these issues are still prevalent today, and we may never be free of these questions, the nineteenth century was difficult for women and children in particular.  Cross seamlessly weaves in these details, and shows the ways in which these groups were vulnerable without imposing conclusions on the reader.    This attention to detail gives the story a kind energy and realism that makes it easy to engage with the narrative, and to see how the lives of all of the characters are shaped and directed by class and gender.

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