Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger
Finishing School #1
Little, Brown & Company 2013
YA Urban Fantasy; Steampunk; Historical Paranormal Mystery
Only fourteen years old, Sophronia Temminnick is well established as the troublesome child in her family. She likes to take the mechanicals apart to see how they work, and her adventurous spirit and complete lack of interest in the latest fashions or appearances in general are a trial for her mother in particular. Desperate to get her daughter on the right track and “cure” her of her failings, her mother enrols Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.
It all happens rather fast, and within an hour of learning about the school and her mother’s plans, Sophronia finds herself in a carriage with Mademoiselle and two other children: Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott and her brother, Pillover. Their parents have great hopes of them being evil; Pillover is going to Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique, the sibling school, to learn how to be bad, but looking at Dimity’s pretty face and fancy clothes, as well as her friendly, rather naive manner, it’s hard to think of her as at all bad. Sophronia is starting to wonder just who these people were and what was going on, when their carriage is accosted by flywaymen and Mademoiselle Geraldine is revealed to be an older student in disguise, sent on a mission not only to collect the three new students but also a prototype, in order to graduate.
The prototype is not in the carriage and the girl masquerading as their headmistress, Monique, refuses to tell anyone where it is. She also takes the credit for their escape from the flywaymen. Once at the school – three huge, connected dirigibles perpetually floating through the mist – Sophronia quickly comes to realise that this is no simple school of etiquette: the girls here are being trained to spy and kill. She just as quickly comes to love it.
With the help of a nine year old inventor called Genevieve, a boy from the boiler room called Soap, and her friend Dimity, Sophronia is determined to figure out where Monique hid the prototype – something that the Picklemen are after and have already attacked the ship for – and who she’s planning to sell it to. Little does she realise just how close to home the answers really are.
Set in 1851, approximately twenty or so years earlier than the Parasol Protectorate series, Carriger has set her new YA series in the same world as Alexia Tarabotti’s. Werewolves and vampires are a part of society, as are mechanicals – coal-fired servant bots and handy gadgets. The link between the two series is Genevieve, the inventor, who is a youngish woman in the Parasol Protectorate. The key difference, though, is in the writing: while I struggle a bit with the slightly forced, “upper crust” style of speaking and describing used in the earlier series, this book is written for Young Adults, and is very smooth and fast-paced in comparison.
Carriger has all her much-loved trademarks out: a predilection for tea, good manners and parasols; a wry, often ironic sense of humour; and a flamboyant imagination. I’m not supposed to quote from an ARC but I just have to include this snippet (and I can’t see it being changed or scrapped for any reason!):
“I’m sorry you’re going to miss the theatricals.”
“In Swiffle-on-Exe? It could be worse.”
“It is worse: all the boys [from Bunson's] will be attending. [...] Some of the girls even keep score. They use what we learn to make as many boys as possible fall in love with them.”
[...] “Isn’t Bunson’s training evil geniuses?”
“Well, is that wise? Having a mess of seedling evil geniuses falling in love with you willy-nilly? What if they feel spurned?”
“Ah, but in the interim, think of the lovely gifts they can make you. Monique bragged that one of her boys made her silver and wood hair sticks as anti-supernatural weapons. With amethyst inlay. And another made her an exploding wicker chicken.”
“Goodness, what’s that for?”
Dimity pursed her lips. “Who doesn’t want an exploding wicker chicken?” [pp.162-3]
The plot is simple enough but the story keeps itself busy by introducing Sophronia to a whole new world – and the readers along with her. It’s not necessary to have read the Parasol Protectorate in order to understand the world here, though if you have you’ll pick up on little inter-connecting characters and details and understand what’s going on a lot more than Sophronia does. Carriger keeps the tone light and even slightly frivolous throughout the story, lending it a cartoon-like quality that serves it well. This isn’t a serious story, though it does touch on class snobbery and hints to the darker side of supernatural-human politics.
Mostly I enjoyed the concept of the espionage school disguised as a finishing school, a fact that the real Mademoiselle Geraldine is completely ignorant of. Sophronia is intelligent, adventurous, strong and courageous and makes for a great heroine and a solid role model. There’s no real romance going on here – she is only fourteen after all – though there is the start of something with her friendship with Soap, a black boy whose real name is Phineas. I’m still curious about this whole other side to Victorian England that Carriger has created, the idea that there are people – upper class gentry, no less – who are part of a secret evil society and want their children to follow in their evil footsteps. Not sure where that’s going or what that looks like; Dimity certainly didn’t have an evil bone in her body, and it makes me wonder what her parents are like – and what they actually do.
This is such a fun read, though I struggled with the first couple of chapters which had some awkward turns-of-phrase that had me confused for a bit, but when in the mood for a light-hearted, silly and imaginative adventure story you can’t go wrong with Etiquette & Espionage.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via the Ontario Blog Squad.
“The plot was extremely fun and filled with intrigue and adventure. [...] This was such a lighthearted and entertaining read and I loved everything about the world Gail Carriger has created.” The Book Scout
“Sophronia is a bold and sensible protagonist who is well suited to a career as an intelligencer due to her curious and adventurous tendencies. [...] I admit some bias in my love for Etiquette & Espionage because it had a vague semblance to Harry Potter – a quirky boarding school, fun and cartoonish characters, a general whimsical atmosphere. Sounds good, right? You should read it!” Recovering Potter Addict
“What I like about Carriger’s writing is the dry wit as well as the more approachable version of steampunk. I never felt overwhelmed with the details and could imagine what she describes. I thought with this book in particular that she vividly portrays the setting of the school and its mechanics as Sophronia goes exploring on her adventures.” Reading Extensively
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