The Friday Society is set in London in the year 1900 and stars three different girls: Cora, Michiko, and Nellie.
Cora used to sell flowers on the streets but now has a comfortable and endlessly interesting life as Lord White’s lab assistant. Unfortunately, it looks like Lord White might be planning on replacing her.
Michiko ran away from home when she was 11 and spent a few years as a retired geisha’s servant before running away yet again and becoming a samurai trainee. Frustrated at her teacher’s unwillingness to give her her own sword, she agreed to go to London with a man named Callum and work as his assistant. Callum was nice enough, at first, but it soon became clear that he was using Michiko’s skills to trick rich Londoners into paying him enormous fees for his self-defense courses.
Nellie used to work at a burlesque house and is now a magician’s assistant. She’s strong, flexible, and never forgets anything. She’s also incredibly beautiful and hates the attention this attracts, even as she is aware that her looks help draw a crowd and add to the Great Raheem’s act.
The three girls’ paths cross when they meet at a ball and discover a severed head. They gradually realize that this murdered man may be connected to other recent deaths, so they decide to team up and find the killer.
I picked this up a while back on the basis of its cover and vague memories of reading a couple positive reviews of it. I was expecting it to be fluffy and action-packed fun. Unfortunately, it turned out to be utterly terrible.
First, the good. Let’s see… It was a really quick read, despite its many problems. The cute young police officer that Nellie fell for was really nice. Michiko had the potential to be one of the most interesting girls in the book. The action scenes near the end were okay. And there was parkour!
Okay, that’s all I’ve got. Now for the bad.
I generally interpret steampunk books to be alternate history. If a book says it’s set in London in 1900, I want it to feel at least vaguely like it’s actually set in that time and place. However, history was one of my worst subjects in school, and I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of historical romances that are really only historical-ish. My standards for historical details aren’t very high, and yet this book had me checking the Oxford English Dictionary by page 18, when Cora used the word “skeevy.” On page 17, Cora had been thinking about how a particular opium den “freaked her out.” Had this book been set in the 1960s or 1970s, this would have been more appropriate, but the language didn’t work at all for something supposedly set in 1900. I had the sneaking suspicion that the author’s “research” for this book was limited to a handful of Wikipedia pages and some Buffy the Vampire Slayer binge-watching for dialogue inspiration.
Then there was the enormous and useless mess that was the investigation. Crime scene preservation was nonexistent. It was not uncommon for the girls to cart bodies away from crime scenes. They took one dead girl home to her family before reporting her murder to the police. Later on, they went to the extra effort of carrying a dead boy to the police rather than going with the much easier option of contacting the police and having them come to the scene of the crime. The only explanation I could come up with for this was that readers were supposed to believe the police would have just ignored the murder and let the body rot in the streets.
The girls did so little actual investigating that, when they finally met up with the villain, the person had to do a stereotypical villain monologue just so they’d know the whole story. They’d have missed out on almost everything important, otherwise. The one crime that I solved ages before them (seriously, the villain practically confessed to one of the girls), they didn’t manage to figure out until the solution had been spelled out for them and then basically underlined.
I wanted the girls to be more awesome than they turned out to be. They were all hugely dependent on their masters, and only one out of those three masters was worth squat (although I was taken aback at how casually he killed a man - okay, so the guy had been poisoned and was dying, but he just snapped that man’s neck like it was nothing). Two out of three of the girls had love interests who turned their brains to mush. All Cora’s love interest had going for him was that he was handsome, and their kissing scene came out of nowhere. Nellie supposedly hated the way guys reacted to her beauty, and yet she instantly fell for the young cop, apparently because he was the first young man to ever notice her looks and yet not grope her.
Kress didn’t make as good use of the girls’ skills as she could have. Cora had one invention of her own that came into play near the end of the book. Nellie’s flexibility and burglary skills turned out to be useful, but her memory was a throwaway detail at the beginning that never came up again. In fact, since Cora remembered something near the end of the book better than Nellie did, I have a feeling the author forgot that Nellie was supposed to have more abilities under her belt than being able to pick locks and break in and out of buildings. Michiko only had one skill, swordsmanship, although she was learning a bit of parkour on the side. She was at least a good fighter, and more focused than the other two girls.
Although I probably liked her the best out of the three, I have to talk about Michiko. The girl was a giant stereotype. From the age of 11 to 14, she lived with a retired geisha who taught her how to play the shamisen and perform a few geisha dances. She said she’d been with Callum for about a year, and all the girls were about 16 or 17 years old, so I’m guessing that her samurai training lasted from about age 14 to 15 or 16. I’m a little surprised that Kress didn’t somehow cram a bit of ninja training in there.
At any rate, the geisha training was brushed aside like it had never happened, even though Michiko had technically spent more years on that than on her samurai training. Despite having started her samurai training pretty late (a little googling seems to indicate that most started their training between the ages of 5 and 7), she supposedly became so good that the only possible reason she wasn’t given her own sword was because she was a girl. I...find that a little difficult to believe, although I’ll grant that she was probably much better than Callum could ever hope to be.
Even though she managed to learn all these things between the age of 11 and maybe 17, she somehow had barely learned any English after a year with Callum. For much of the book her vocabulary consisted of maybe a dozen words, including “apologies” and “death.” This unfortunately meant that she was excluded from most of Cora and Nellie’s conversations. This particularly bugged me during a sudden drunken sleepover that happened right after the first body was discovered (well, sort of the first). The sleepover was stupid to begin with, but I had to grit my teeth every time the text made a point of telling readers that the girls were trying to include Michiko in their activities but, well, they just couldn’t because she couldn’t understand anything. Later on, Cora mentally described Michiko as “all silence and mystery” (162), conveniently forgetting that Michiko didn’t have the language skills necessary to talk about herself.
I mentioned earlier that the author’s research was probably limited to a few Wikipedia pages. Most of those Wikipedia pages probably dealt with Japanese honorifics and samurai, judging by a few very odd little sections in the book. I can’t really judge the accuracy of the samurai stuff, although the repeated mention of samurai masks seemed a bit odd to me. Honorifics came up during one awkwardly long moment, when an elderly samurai in London lectured Michiko on her privately rebellious habit of calling Callum “Callum-kun” rather than “Callum-san.”
I seem to be in the minority - lots of people thought this book was at least decent. Personally, I can’t imagine recommending this to anyone. It wasn’t interesting enough to make up for its many faults.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)