The Friday Society

fridaysociety By Adrienne Kress [LibraryThingGoodreads]

It’s turn-of-the-century London, and strange things are afoot: murders, robberies, and a conspiracy involving the Crown Jewels, the floating mineral cavorite, and a mysterious weapon. Luckily, three teenage girls are on the case: tech-savvy Cora, who works for a steampunk inventor; beautiful Nellie, a flamboyant Magician’s assistant; and serious Michiko, fight assistant and samurai in training. With the three of them working together, no villain stands a chance.

Way back in the dark ages of this blog (jeez, have we really been doing this for six years?) I read Kress’s first book, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, and absolutely loved it, so a Kress book about girls teaming up and becoming friends in steampunk Victorian England seemed like a sure thing for me. But, well…maybe I’ve become more discerning (or more jaded) in the intervening years (six of them! good god); maybe I unthinkingly give more of a pass to first-time authors and expect more after a few (six) years have gone by; maybe Alex was just way better. Because I’m sorry to say, I really didn’t enjoy The Friday Society very much at all.

The first issue I noticed was the Victorian setting. By which I mean: it was nonexistent. Yes, technically it took place in turn-of-the-century London, but the prose was completely modern, and the heroines speak with current colloquialisms (“I look hot,” “This is totally uncool,” etc.). Though there are some 11th-hour throwaway remarks about feminism and the restrictiveness of Victorian society, the girls are fairly unrestrained by their time period; they go where they want when they want, they talk back to and hit on men, they have a slumber party. (This book contains both a typical modern dinner date and the words “make out session.” Nope nope nope.) The steampunk is barely a factor until the very end, when they bust out a couple of cool weapons. There was no sense of mood, of place, of worldbuilding. A huge part of the enjoyment of steampunk comes from reveling in the 19th century setting and clockwork inventions, so when a book doesn’t bother, it smacks of bandwagon-jumping. Certainly it begs the question: If you’re not going to use your historical setting, what’s the point of having it?

It was also super problematic in terms of race. First, there’s Michiko, who is serious and silent and wise and focused on honor. She’s a samurai in training, or was when she left Japan, but she also worked for an aging geisha at one point. She speaks very little English, so during sections that aren’t from her point of view, she’s forced to speak very little, and in stilted English when she does talk. She’s the only one of the three protagonists who is abused by her current employer; she’s also the only one who doesn’t get a love interest. There are two other Japanese characters in the book: an old, retired samurai who gives Michiko her sword, and a young boy who she trains, who she calls “Little Monkey,” and who show

.

The other major character of color is Raheem, Nellie’s boss, a mysterious and wise magician whose face and bare body are described with more sensual detail than any other character in the book, who gets mysterious shipments from Africa, and who is a font of tea, yoga, and Eastern mysticism-tinged wisdom. Oh, and there’s a Chinese man who works in an opium den and seems to be part of the conspiracy in a way that never actually pans out.

I will give Kress this credit: she attempts to problematize the racism and Orientalizing of Victorian culture. Michiko’s employer treats her like a thing to put on display and is deeply ignorant of Japanese culture, and the book heaps scorn on him for it. Nellie is dismissive of people who exoticize or fear Raheem.

But Kress’s noble efforts to problematize this exotic othering fall flat in the face of her silent, sexless samurai heroine, victimized by white men and uttering only a few halting English sentences; or her sexually objectified, mysteriously wise, magic-wielding brown man. Especially when the bit characters of color consist of a wise samurai and an opium den owner. I mean, come on. You can’t combat racism by deploying a dozen unconfronted stereotypes!

I liked the concept of the book a lot, and the efforts to build a friendship between girls and confront ideas of sexism, classism, racism, and sexual violence. Those are all good things! But ultimately the lack of Victoriana research or worldbuilding, problematic handling of race, and thin characters and prose left The Friday Society very lacking. Two and a half cupcakes.

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